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.