Barrelhouse Reviews: The Ash Family by Molly Dektar

Review by Anna Cain


One fall evening in North Carolina, 19-year-old Berie meets a stranger who understands her so perfectly that fate seems to have placed him in her path. The man calls himself Bay, and he is a recruiter for a communal, environmentalist homestead that treads the boundary between utopia and cult. This is the inciting incident of The Ash Family, the debut novel of North Carolina native Molly Dektar.

Berie has lived among artists, squatters, and anarchists, but she aims to go further: not to change society, but to live outside it entirely. She finds a sense of belonging inside Bay’s organization, the eponymous Ash Family. They raise livestock, scavenge wasted food, live without personal possessions, and dabble in the odd act of eco-terrorism. The family is led by a charismatic man called Dice, who “understands you like a lightning bolt understands a rod.” Berie sheds her old clothes and belongings, even her old name—Dice rechristens her “Harmony.” They say Harmony can live with the family for three days, or the rest of her life. She chooses life.

A strength of The Ash Family is that this radical decision feels believable. Through flashbacks, we learn that Harmony views college and career as “a dam on the river of a vivid life.” She perceives society as little more than empty consumerism. This old world is personified by Harmony’s ex-boyfriend, whose revolutionary politics are tainted by personal hypocrisy, and Harmony’s mother, who sells worthless knick-knacks and places inordinate value on mere objects. However, in nature, Harmony feels part of a grand ecosystem much larger than her own small life. Always a compelling writer, Dektar’s prose truly sings when she describes the natural world. She writes of “thick fragrant mist that evaporates off the road but can’t quite loft into the air” and “saw-edged leaf blossoms, green as poisonous snakes” and “the colors of early spring in the Southern Appalachians: pale taupe, mauve, angel blue, map blue.” You don’t have to read the author’s biography to know she is writing about her home.

Another highlight of Dektar’s writing is the authority and accuracy with which she describes the Ash Family farm. In the closing acknowledgements, Dektar thanks a friend for “immersing herself on the farm with me.” She did her research, and it shows. She describes farm life with detail that is, to borrow her own word, immersive. We see all the components of a working farm: when to harvest and when to thresh, how to slaughter a lamb and how to birth one. The farm sections are filled with surprising little details—like “tilling [the fields] to kill the salamanders,” or zucchinis with “beautiful even spots, like butterflies”—that clearly came from close observation.

Harmony just wants to tend her sheep and search for solitude in nature, but the Ash Family has other plans for her. The group is bound by unusual, even nonsensical, rules. While the mountains are filled with heady freedom, inside the farm, the dominant feeling is claustrophobia. Here, “the barns have eyes,” and Dice is aware of every doubt or transgression. He lives by different rules than the rest of the family and imposes harsh disciplinary measures, both classic attributes of cults. Above all, the Ash Family farm is a place with secrets, with locked rooms the true believers pretend not to know about.

At 352 pages, The Ash Family is not too hefty, but pacing issues make it feel longer. Time is measured by the passing of the seasons and slips away quickly, but Harmony herself doesn’t seem to move. She remains on the outside of the family, even when she measures her time with the cult in years. As the novel starts winding down, Harmony is still in the lowest echelon, not even trusted enough to join protest actions. This contributes to the novel’s stasis. A steady progression up the ranks, with more of the group’s secrets peeling away, may have kept the reader more engaged with the cult storyline. As it is, the novel is driven not by action, but by ruminations and interpersonal shifts.

This feeling of stasis is compounded by flat or underused side characters. The book jacket teases that Harmony’s friends in the Ash Family are prone to suddenly disappearing. This means, however, that well-developed supporting characters vanish prematurely. As for the rest of the Ash Family, they are apparently several dozen strong, but only a handful are mentioned by name. Dice holds some initial fascination, but remains at a stubborn distance. The book never draws away the layers to the leader’s true motivations and inner self. Bay, the man who first initiated Harmony into the Ash Family, is positioned as a love interest, but he stays off the page for much of the novel. Fortunately, some of these issues are redeemed by the interiority and growth of Harmony herself. A very dynamic character, she sheds old selves and is reborn as frequently as the passing seasons.

The Ash Family is a cult novel that never aims to be a thriller. At times, it is a book of nature writing: Dektar, like Harmony, thrives in the mountains and woods. At other times, the novel feels like a coming-of-age story specifically for searchers and seekers, disillusioned young people fatalistic about climate change. Dice preaches about the day when “Siberia will melt. The rain forests will burn down. The will oceans stop mixing. And the wars will start.” For Harmony, the only hope is a new way of life, a different, more essential path for humanity. However, the Ash Family purchases its pristine, off-the-grid lifestyle with so many abuses and oversteps that it seems doomed from the start. Although Dektar is never overtly cynical, The Ash Family offers little redemption for society or the people trying to save it. The novel asks not only if another way of life is possible, but, in the end, if it’s even worth it.

Anna Cain graduated from Colorado College in 2017, but still behaves like a stereotypical English major. She currently lives in Arizona with two rescue dogs and a large collection of Medieval literature. 

Barrelhouse Reviews: Savage Conversations by Leanne Howe

Review by James Dinneen

$15.95, Published by Coffee House Press, 144 Pages

June, 1876. Mary Todd Lincoln writes in a letter to one Mrs. Bradwell: “The only trouble about me, in all my sorrow and bereavements has been that my mind has always been too clear and remembrances have always been too keen, in the midst of grief.” It’s perfectly regular grieving, but Mrs. Lincoln’s grief was not particularly regular. Just a year before writing, she was put on trial for insanity by her son Robert Todd—her other three sons, like her husband, were all dead. Confined to a sanatorium for four months, she grappled with hallucinations and an opiate addiction while the rest of the country failed at Reconstruction. Knowing all that, “my sorrow and bereavements” is kind of unsatisfying, especially for those of us drawn to the more macabre, tragic, gory strain of American history. It’s not all emancipation and bills of rights; it’s also unchecked slaughter and rapacity. Somehow, Mary’s sober 19th-century epistolary prose doesn’t quite get us there.

This is where Leanne Howe intervenes. In Savage Conversations, a slim book of dramatic verse, Howe imagines a series of phantasmagoric scenes during Mary Todd Lincoln’s months in the Bellevue Place Sanitarium, Batavia, Illinois, 1875. But the purpose of this book is not ultimately to get us to empathize with Mary’s pain as a psychotic, bonneted white woman. Rather, Howe hijacks Mary’s nightmares to resurrect a little-known segment of the hagiographic Lincoln history: in 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the simultaneous hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in Minnesota, which Howe’s introduction claims is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In Savage Conversations, that atrocity produces a specter called Savage Indian who haunts Mary at Bellevue Place. They’re joined by the character of The Rope, a “merciless truth-teller” who “seethes” and ties nooses.

(There’s a way in which reading any historical narrative is a paranormal experience. It involves the resurrected dead, inscrutable characters tortured by long-forgotten concerns, the eerie feeling of recognizing the present in the past and trying not to be doomed to repeat it. But it seems the Lincolns are subject to more of this paranormal re-visitation than most historical figures. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 2010. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017. What is it about the Lincolns? Or is it something about the Civil War in general? Or Reconstruction and its still unfulfilled promises?)

Each night in the sanatorium, Mary and Savage Indian converse. She laments the many tragedies of her life. Sometimes he listens patiently, but most of the time he is an aggressive spirit who wants to open her eyes to the murderous policies supported by her husband’s administration on the Western frontier. In her repeating nightmare/masochistic fantasy, Savage Indian sews her eyelids open with wire. But little changes. She knows her husband was a hero (even if he loved another woman), her country victorious (even if she secretly harbored Confederate sympathies). “Even with your eyes sewn open you still see nothing,” Savage Indian chastises her.

Howe takes Mary seriously when she writes in that letter “my mind has always been too clear.” What if Mary’s well-documented ravings about an Indian coming in the night to sew her eyelids open were not random, but were revelations, prophetic visions granted by the god of history to the “Abused. Abuser”? What message might that ghoulish spirit have carried to Mrs. Lincoln in 1875? To us in 2019?

You’ll find answers in Savage Conversations, but it takes some patience. The conversations are written in a cryptic verse intricate with historical detail. The language sometimes gets weighed down by that history, even as it works to revitalize the usual historical mode. But Savage Conversations is a very short book, and there’s lots of space on the page—on one page the only text is “THE ROPE SEETHES”—and there are moments of incisive, enraged, shudder-inducing language. Take this scene, “THE ROPE SEARCHES FOR HIS LEGACY”:


I know the secret thrill for taut,

Tying up, tying down,

Binding tight,

Strapping hard,

Lashing knot to payload—for kicks,

I am a collar,

A strangler,

I float in the wind like a flag on holidays.

I inspire national pride.


This is where I tell you about my friend’s dying.

A death song, he sang it, then we sang together.

On the platform in Mankato, we tried to grasp hands,

shouting to the winds

Mni Sóta Maḳoce, land where the waters reflect the skies,

The land where we die.

Words caught in our throats. Choked by a muscular rope.

You might expect Howe’s paranormal approach would allow some distance from considerations of historical accuracy, but throughout, Howe seems intent on locating this “tribe of ghosts” within a framework of real places and sources. She leans especially on a book called The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln, where, she writes in her notes, she first read that Mary’s hallucinations included an American Indian spirit. Howe footnotes specific phrases culled from her research, such as Mary referring to Ford’s Theatre as “that dreadful house.” She includes Mary’s letter to her sister. The real-world address of each location is printed at the beginning of each scene. Howe footnotes an allusion to Genesis and a quote from Macbeth. She notes that a single noose from the Dakota hangings is preserved today at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

But Savage Conversations takes place somewhere in between its sources, between sanity and madness, between then and now, between the living and the dead. It pushes past the limitations of textual sources for telling indigenous history and accounts of insanity. It’s American history at its most despicable, where no one sings “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” and what remains is only a sadistic melodrama.

James Dinneen is a writer in Brooklyn.