SHRUG by Lisa Braver Moss is one of those sleeper type books that starts out slowly and creeps up on you, before grabbing you by the throat and demanding that you pay attention to it. Martha Goldenthal is a young woman growing up in the 60’s in the centre of politically active Berkley. Caught between the awakening sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, and parents she neither understands or likes, but strangely wants approval from, she is shy, timid and lacking in any confidence whatsoever as she takes on board and internalises the constant belittling and criticism of her mother. Coupled with a father who clearly loves her but has immense anger issues and is unable to control his fists, Martha lives in constant fear of one or the other, usually both, parents. Unable to form a positive self-opinion, Martha grows up succeeding at school but unable to figure out why – after all she’s dumb, isn’t she? With her two siblings, elder sister Hildy and younger brother Drew, plus her best friend Stephanie, Martha must somehow navigate the difficult waters of adolescence and teenage years without going crazy, getting hooked on drugs and alcohol, getting pregnant, or choosing suicide as a way out.
As stated, this story, SHRUG, really crept up on me. Author Lisa Braver Moss has created a character, in Martha, that is vividly recognisable to anyone who has come from even a mildly dysfunctional family, of which Martha’s is far worse. She has to grow up quickly and face issues that are adult and above her understanding but she determinedly struggles for acceptance, understanding and love. I particularly enjoyed the pop culture references to the period (my own period of childhood). I, as a reader, saw a strong metaphor between the two clashing worlds Martha was caught between, represented by the old order (Classical Music and Conservatism) and the rising tide of youth anger and rebellion (Rock Music and Protest). Without the definitive guidance of a parent, Martha floundered between the two orders, never feeling she managed to fit into either. Her mother, the one woman she defended and loved, rejected her outright and her father, she felt, only begrudgingly accepted her, preferring, it seemed ot her, her older sister over her. For anyone who has felt this teenage angst of rejection I have no doubt Martha’s story rang true and close to home. For me, this was a wonderful, Young Adult, Coming of Age, novel that is as relevant now, as the period in which it was set. One felt it was semi-autobiographical and the author had an intense personal experience to draw on, to write some of the more emotional passages. I can highly recommend this read.