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The Ash Family


The Ash Family

Cults, with their charismatic leaders and promises of transformation and salvation, seek out those in crisis, be it emotional or spiritual. Nineteen-year-old Berie is more of a discontent than a seeker, but does understand herself as looking for something greater. Instead of getting on the plane meant to take her to college, or even getting on the bus meant to take her to some other destination, Berie accepts a ride from a stranger, who takes her to meet the Ash Family.

THE ASH FAMILY is Molly Dektar’s captivating and thoughtful debut novel. Berie is a deeply insecure and troubled young woman, though Dektar doesn’t provide readers much background for reasons. For example, she is disconnected from her mother, though that seems to be due mostly to something interior to her and not derived from some terrible mothering. In a moment of uncertainty, Berie is approached by Bay at the bus stop and is immediately attracted to and intrigued by him. Bay speaks only cryptically about the family and their North Carolina farm, but Berie’s uneasiness about college, her desire to leave her mother and ex-boyfriend behind, and her dream of being part of something meaningful signifies that she finds import and promise in his words. She is told she can stay “three days or the rest of your life” with the Ash Family, but her lack of critical response or skepticism means it is just about a forgone conclusion that she will choose to stay.

"The book’s tone is somewhere between dreamy and nightmarish, and Dektar does a fantastic job creating and maintaining that tension."

Berie’s arrival at the farm, a lovely and idyllic space, represents the erasure of her past and her individual identity. She is forbidden from using her “fake-name” and is renamed “Harmony.” Having arrived with no possessions, she shares communal clothing and shoes, and is asked not to think about or discuss her past life. She is tested by the culture of the group and by the hard work they demand of her. It’s not that Berie doesn’t harbor doubts; it’s just that she pushes them away, especially in the face of her physical attraction to Bay, her need to impress the strong and stern women of the family, and her compulsion to prove herself to the family’s leader, Dice.

Despite her budding friendship with the (relatively) free-thinker Queen and her encounter with her ex-boyfriend Isaac, and despite the mounting tensions in the family and examples of violence and danger, Berie continues to try to fit in and become a better family member. The assurance that she will come to fully understand the family’s assertion that there is no “definite self” and lose herself in that metaphysical reality is Berie’s hope for peace and meaning.

The book’s tone is somewhere between dreamy and nightmarish, and Dektar does a fantastic job creating and maintaining that tension. The motivations for the characters are not always clear, and even Berie remains an enigma. Yet the emotional intensity --- and perhaps the strangeness --- of the novel is compelling even without those insights. The pace is mostly slow, undercut with a steady ominous march toward catastrophe, if not action. Dektar’s strength is in description and the turning of a poetic and unique phrase. The sky in one scene is “winter calico,” and on the same page Berie’s mother is described as collecting objects “like they were part of her memory, the same way a spider uses its nest as part of its brain.”

THE ASH FAMILY is a lovely book and a scary story. Dektar’s writing and vision bring brightness to an otherwise dark tale.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 26, 2019

The Ash Family
by Molly Dektar

  • Publication Date: April 7, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501144871
  • ISBN-13: 9781501144875