Coming of Age in Cold War America

Book review: A Girl’s Guide to Missiles, by Karen Piper
Amazon

Karen Piper, a professor of literature and geology and author of several books on environmental issues, writes a personal memoir about her life, including scenes from her childhood growing up in the 1970s in China Lake, a secretive missile range in the Mojave Desert. Her narrative as she walks readers through her life folds in myriad topics relating to prevalent attitudes, beliefs, politics and culture of the era. The overarching theme seems to be how her family background in the defense industry and Christian upbringing influenced her worldview, and how she developed distance from those deep-rooted factors.

Her father worked on missiles, and he’s a major figure in her life, stirring a lot of fascination even in her adulthood about what he did during his career at the government facility and before that, flying planes and contraband in World War II. He succumbed to Alzheimer’s, providing some truly sad and reflective chapters. Background about her mother’s family’s immigration from Sweden is also a revealing glimpse into an immigrant experience during a very different era with different attitudes, and it’s telling in terms of her mother’s life choices and perhaps Piper’s own.

Piper presents many cultural and political milestones and markers that make for juicy stories. Namely the scam of Amway sales and evangelism. Piper attended bizarre religious schooling that didn’t teach much, and should definitely make us worry what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has up her sleeve (DeVos espouses a similar brand of private religious education, not to mention is married to the son of Amway’s founder. A lot to be concerned about.)

Her historical touchpoints are also highlights, like this well-chosen Nixon quote, describing his complaints to his national security advisor: “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy.” Sounds familiar. These historically relevant segments – drawn from major events in the Nixon and Reagan eras, primarily, were insightful for the personal perspective she provided. They mostly worked because she looks at them through the lens of the defense industry and America’s use of missiles in general – how the kind of thinking she was raised with influenced her for the rest of her life, creeping in to illuminate aspects of national news.

The religious component was my favorite element, as she demonstrates the “strange duality” between the no-nonsense scientists at China Lake and their fervor for Christianity. “One China Laker described his surprise upon realizing how religious the community was. ‘I concluded that six days a week the folks follow the reality of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, but on the seventh day they toss reason aside.'”

Or a very funny scene when she describes her childhood fear that her acceptance of salvation as a Baptist didn’t take because she uttered it while sitting on the toilet, the only place in their tiny government house where she was afforded some privacy.

The stories from within China Lake were highlights too, but it was misleading. The memoir is ostensibly wrapped around this experience – see the subtitle – but China Lake is a minor figure. Readers hoping for more insight into this intriguing childhood setting will be mostly disappointed. It’s much more a portrait of a woman’s place in Cold War America, and the roles she took on in her work and personal life over several decades, although the storytelling makes it difficult to appreciate any message from this.

Despite the pros, I didn’t enjoy this. The narrative was all over the place. There are far too many stories being told and most weren’t strong enough to carry a narrative. It needed tighter editing to create something more cohesive and punch up the writing. The writing might be the biggest drawback. Some examples: Everyone slowly turned to stare. I was afraid they all might jump on me and eat me. Leaving aside the annoying detail of an adult thinking people might eat her for witnessing something she shouldn’t, most of the book is written in this childlike observational language. That’s fine sometimes, especially when writing about childhood, but the extent makes the entire story feel dumbed down for an author who comes across as remarkably intelligent.

Or this: “It seemed as though aliens had taken over her body, not ‘Alien’ aliens, but the happy kind. Still, I did not trust them. They wanted to take her away.” WHAT. This is from an adult perspective, not a child’s. Granted, I had an advance copy and quotes may change, and I do hope they did.

Yet in other places, the sentence structure is deliberately, unnecessarily complicated. Or it’s like this: In Germany, he had overseen labor at a concentration camp where one-third of the population of sixty thousand people had died building V-2 rockets. I had to reread that sentence, unsure what I was missing, before finally wondering, why not just say twenty thousand people? Is it really less impacting?

Weak writing coupled with many splintered forays into life incidents, the inclusion of some of which I couldn’t understand, makes the book feel overly long. Her personal stories are compelling in and of themselves to some extent but not enough to warrant a book this length. It’s partially redeemed by those connections made to political and defense-related events and the occasional meaningful observation.

There were also some odd gaps in relationships, so that we don’t see how they developed but are expected to buy the change. Much of this is a lesson in the importance of the writing rule of show, don’t tell.

Something both good and bad is another theme scattered throughout – of learning to be autonomous and take care of herself, to get herself out of that desert for good instead of depending on a man to do it for her. She writes, “For so long, I had believed that only a man could pull me out of my baby cage, my fake reality, my MK-Ultra box. I believed, like so many women, in a rescuer, someone who would take me away from China Lake. Yet men had only sent me into new altered domains, regions too difficult for me to compute.”

It’s a great lesson, but the stories of her romances were tedious and poorly described, and the MK-Ultra box in that analogy comes out of nowhere. Where was the editor?

Each section opens with a quote from the “Missile Guidebook” of her imagination, showing how missile culture has influenced her life. Occasionally a quote hits its target, like, “You are more powerful than a missile, which can only erase life and stories. You can create life and tell stories, stories that are true.” This had potential.

Some powerful historic tales get told with personal perspective along the way, but unfortunately most is lost in a scattered narrative and underdeveloped, unedited writing. 1.5/5

A Girl’s Guide to Missiles:
Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert
by Karen Piper
published August 14, 2018 by Viking

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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23 thoughts on “Coming of Age in Cold War America

    1. It was so terrible. I don’t know how it got published in this state. The whole thing needed to be at least ~100 pages shorter and edited much better…or at all…it read like an editor hadn’t even looked at it.

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  1. An excellent review of what sounds like a mixed-in-quality book. I particularly liked your mentions of how some of the book is very relevant to today (evangelism, private education/DeVos, press as the enemy, etc.).

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    1. Thanks so much! It was very uneven in quality. Those bits you mention were the best parts for me, not only because her perspective was interesting but because they showed how far back some of these issues we’re struggling with today on the national stage go. This stuff has been percolating for a long time, to say the least!

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  2. “Alas.” I just can’t tolerate bad writing. I stop reading. Thanks for saving me the money, as the topic looked intriguing. Writing from the child’s perspective takes a special skill, too, or it comes off a tad precious. Another great review!

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    1. Bad writing is such a dealbreaker, isn’t it?! It’s a shame because I was so excited about the topic too. I’m glad I had an advance copy but I was a little miffed about the time spent because it was quite long and I didn’t want to give up on such an interesting premise, so I saw it through instead of throwing in the towel like I should’ve! And completely agree with you, writing from a child’s perspective takes a special skill and when the tone carries over in the adult years of a life story, bad news. Thanks so much, Jan!

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  3. Great review.

    I’m going to have to read this book. One, because I’m interested in the religious aspect of her upbringing (the church of Christ and Baptists are religious cousins). The other reason is, I discovered a year or so ago that I lived near missile silos most of my childhood. They were located 20 miles away — and removed sometime in the eighties. Miami University now owns the site where they were kept. I learned about them through a chance conversation with a National Guardsmen. I researched it and learned it was true.

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    1. That’s fascinating, so crazy the kinds of things we end up living amidst! I had family members in the defense industry and I’m captivated by stories from it, such a weird industry. However, I would caution getting your hopes up about what’s written here about that and the religious story line, as both of those topics get extremely minor coverage despite the book being marketed with them as primary subjects. That was part of my disappointment with this overall. I can’t say the slog through this one was worth it…that’s my disclaimer! 🙂

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  4. I’m never very keen on books where the author inserts his or her own story into history unless they’ve really played a significant role. Sometimes I think authors find themselves more interesting than readers find them… 😉

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    1. So true! They sold this one on the fascinating premise of her background that hardly factors, it turned out to be 300+ pages of rambling stories about some lady’s life. The history itself is interesting, I guess random people’s lives while it was happening…not so much

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  5. I heard the author on the radio the other day and was impressed by her humor and candor. But sometimes the interview is better than the book. You asked a question that I find myself asking all too often while reading recently published books: “Where was the editor?”

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    1. I felt like this one was cleverly packaged with a hook of a theme, but then she proceeded to tell 100 different stories that had nothing to do with China Lake, and the stories of her relationships and career were far less interesting than the unique angle of her childhood. It was very disappointing. But based on her work and accomplishments, she’s clearly intelligent, I think she needed a good editor to trim the fat off this one and fine tune the writing. And it’s probably more on the publisher for the bait and switch of the whole thing.

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    1. It would be great for that! (see the examples I included within the review for a helpful start) But do you ever feel like, when you’re reading something poorly written, that maybe you might unwittingly absorb something from it? I actually had that thought cross my mind while reading this, I’m afraid to have this kind of bad writing anywhere in my brain…

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      1. Excellent point because that is always a possibility. I’m easily influenced by other’s works — and that’s not always a good thing!

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