A poignant, surreal, and fearlessly honest look at growing up on one of the most secretive weapons installations on earth, by a young woman who came of age with missiles
The China Lake missile range is located in a huge stretch of the Mojave Desert, about the size of the state of Delaware. It was created during the Second World War, and has always been shrouded in secrecy. But people who make missiles and other weapons are regular working people, with domestic routines and everyday dilemmas, and four of them were Karen Piper’s parents, her sister, and–when she needed summer jobs–herself. Her dad designed the Sidewinder, which was ultimately used catastrophically in Vietnam. When her mom got tired of being a stay-at-home mom, she went to work on the Tomahawk. Once, when a missile nose needed to be taken offsite for final testing, her mother loaded it into the trunk of the family car, and set off down a Los Angeles freeway. Traffic was heavy, and so she stopped off at the mall, leaving the missile in the parking lot.
Piper sketches in the belief systems–from Amway’s get-rich schemes to propaganda in The Rocketeer to evangelism, along with fears of a Lemurian takeover and Charles Manson–that governed their lives. Her memoir is also a search for the truth of the past and what really brought her parents to China Lake with two young daughters, a story that reaches back to her father’s World War II flights with contraband across Europe. Finally, it recounts the crossroads moment in a young woman’s life when she finally found a way out of a culture of secrets and fear, and out of the desert.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Strong sexual themes
Booklist (June 1, 2018 (Vol. 114, No. 19))
For designing and detonating missiles, China Lake was perfect—a desert wasteland within driving distance of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. But for Piper’s family, life at the military base was full of secrets and challenges, as she reveals in this fascinating memoir. The family moved there when Piper was a girl, so that her father, a WWII veteran, could work on the Sidewinder missile. Eventually, they all got into the missile business, her mother helping create circuit boards after taking a class for housewives and Piper herself working as a clerk in the summers. War surrounded them at China Lake, where streets were named after admirals, ships, and combat zones. But Piper was not allowed to know much of what went on there, even the work her own parents were doing, and years later she returned in search of answers. Here she offers an incredible view of a little-known community, from WWII all the way through 9/11, and examines how her family navigated life in a town built for war.
Kirkus Reviews starred (June 1, 2018)
A smart, self-aware memoir of life in a Cold War outpost.If you’re a government agency, there are three reasons to hide your activities from public view: because they really need to be kept secret, because the activities are fundamentally useless, or because “you want to rip the money bag open and get out a shovel, because there is no accountability whatsoever.” So an official told Piper (Literature and Geography/Univ. of Missouri; The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos, 2014, etc.) in what amounts to a mantra for all of China Lake, a test facility in the hottest, most forbidding part of the Mojave Desert. The author writes of a childhood spent in a household headed by two project workers at China Lake. It was a world of missiles and launches and secrets in a time when the world seemed to be falling to bits—there was Vietnam, for one thing, and then the Manson family zipping around in the nearby desert in their dune buggies (“The Mansons even shopped at our 7-Eleven in Ridgecrest, where Christine and I bought our candy”). By Piper’s account, it was a preternaturally strange place in a strange time punctuated by Amway rallies and enlivened with unhealthy spats of interoffice politics. But interesting things happened there, too, including experiments to turn the weather into a weapon, to say nothing of the business of turning hardscrabble China Lake, a place of prewar brothels and hermits, into a place suitable for straight-arrow military personnel, civilian contractors, and their families. Piper’s account moves among the personal and the universal, with fine small coming-of-age moments. The narrative threatens to unravel a little when, following her father’s death, Piper acts on clues he left behind to follow his footsteps in other arenas of the Cold War, but she pulls everything into an effective—and affecting—whole meant to “ensure that history was not erased.” A little-known corner of the Atomic Age comes into focus through Piper’s skilled storytelling.
About the Author
Karen Piper is the award-winning author of The Price of Thirst, Left in the Dust, and Cartographic Fictions. She has received the Sierra Nature Writing Award and the Next Generation Indie Book Award and fellowships from the Huntington, Carnegie Mellon, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is currently a professor of literature and geography at the University of Missouri.
Her website is www.karenpiper.com.
Around the Web
A Girl’s Guide to Missiles on Amazon
A Girl’s Guide to Missiles on Barnes and Noble
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A Girl’s Guide to Missiles Publisher Page