What We're Reading: "A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert" by Karen Piper

What We're Reading: "A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert" by Karen Piper


When Karen Piper’s Dad, Earl Piper, finds himself without work in the seventies, he takes a job at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the middle of the California’s Mojave desert.  The family is uprooted from their Seattle home where Mr. Piper had worked at Boeing until staffing cuts left him jobless.  His new job at China Lake lands him in the precarious position of main engineer on the Vietnam-era Sidewinder missile. His days are devoted to analyzing and attempting to correct the accuracy of this legendary missile.

The desert is a drastic change from rainy, green Seattle and the Piper family’s adjustment is understandably difficult.  The desert becomes Karen’s and her sister Christine’s new playground and teacher as they become the military station’s version of “latch-key” kids after their mom takes a job working on circuitry for the Tomahawk missile.  China Lake will eventually employ the whole family when she and her sister work summer jobs at the station during their teen years.  Piper’s unusual childhood at China Lake, her parent’s weaponry work, and her early adult years are the focus of this well-written, interesting memoir that gives its reader a first-hand account of a place few of us have even heard of and a perspective on a life revolving around the making of weapons of destruction, and the inevitable toll it takes on her father. 

After graduate school, Piper is offered a job in the English department at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she still teaches to this day.  I especially enjoyed her account of moving to Columbia with her new husband in the nineties since I, too, lived there around the same time while attending library school.  

In addition to being a professor of English, Karen Piper is also an adjunct professor of geography at the University of Missouri in Columbia. She is also the author of The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos, which represents her seven years of research on six continents and many countries.

A Girl’s Guide to Missiles is our 13th annual Capital READ.  Piper will be at the Library September 26 at 7 p.m.  There is still time to read the book before her visit.  The Library has several print and digital copies of this title available for checkout.