At its core, Karen Piper’s memoir “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert” is about war. However, it’s not just about military warfare and the weapons used to wage it, developed in the laboratories in California’s China Lake Desert where Piper’s parents worked and raised her and her sister. Pairing keen childhood observations with contemporary thoughts on the way the world has shifted since her adolescence, Piper crafts a fresh, intimate perspective of America’s biggest wars and shows how they are not that much different from the small, daily wars we wage in our own lives.
At the heart of “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles” is the story of Piper’s parents, Earl and Mary, neither of whom wanted to end up a weapons developer. Earl, a WWII veteran who grew up poor and parentless, found there was little else he could do when no other job would take him and Mary found the work gave her a sense of purpose otherwise lacking from her life on the base. While there may have been more to unpack in the couple’s history on the base, Piper uses their decisions to show that after a while “knowing that war fills your bellies, peace can feel like starvation.”
Beyond the narrative of weapons within Piper’s family, the book marvelously captures the charms and dangers of the physical surroundings of the desert as well as enriching perspectives on iconic figures and events through vivid depictions of the cultural surroundings of each era. Piper traces war through Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush; through Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq; from newspapers, Tom Brokaw, 24-hour streaming, to social media. These seamlessly flow into one another, painting a glaring picture of the way war launched from policy to business and entertainment, all neatly confined into the perimeters of Piper’s childhood in China Lake.
There are occasional moments that stray away from these targets, such as Piper’s intricately-detailed history with religion and her various romantic relationships. These anecdotes seem to point toward her impression of the personal wars we wage, but end up distracting from the notion more than they correspond.
The book, as the name implies, serves as a guidebook and reminder of the irreparable damage we have caused in the past, where our reliance on war has taken us, and where it might lead in our future. At a point in time where even the next week is muddled with uncertainty, the book offers some, albeit grim, clarity as to how our nation operates in defending itself and suggests that we pay attention to the damage that we can mitigate in our own lives. It may be one of the few things left that we can still take control of.
As always, that’s just one girl’s opinion. Let me hear yours! Leave a comment below or on The Folding Chair’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest and let me know if there are any books you’d love to see a review of in the future!