Society tells us that young adulthood is the era of exploration. It’s when we are supposed to leave our safe nests and embrace the promises of newly found freedom. But as Molly Dektar’s remarkable debut, The Ash Family, reminds us, not all the unknown reveals is golden.
At the opening of Dektar’s North Carolina-set novel, we find nineteen-year-old Berie running away—from home, from college, from her safe life. She craves freedom from the constraints her world places on her and, consequently, rebukes her own safety: “Safety was a relic from before humans destroyed the world.” A chance encounter with a mysterious man named Bay at a bus stop leads her to further believe her decision to leave is a good one, especially when he invites her to come visit his perfect “family,” the Ash Family. This grouping of people (self-proclaiming themselves as “the leftovers from the purifying flame”) live simply on a mountainous farm in North Carolina. Bay insists joining him—and, consequently, them—will provide Berie happiness, truth and, most importantly, her desired freedom.
It’s never much of a question whether Berie will go or not. She is a young person seduced by any promise of liberty.
Living on the land proves to be initially cleansing for Berie: “I wouldn’t tell I was happy or sad. All the clutter in my head was gone.” She doesn’t worry about money, food, clothes, or possessions of any kind. It’s all shared; it’s all just material. It doesn’t take long, though, for a sinister sense of mystery to enter Dektar’s novel, and the building tension this layer of unease adds gives Dektar’s novel its weight.
Berie (who becomes “Harmony” while at the farm) gets an ominous warning of the dangerous “real world.” Dice, the leader of the Ash Family, has a menacing presence. Gemini, one of the male members of the family, tells Berie, “Dice will teach you how to see things fresh.” These fresh-seen lessons involve the dangers of medicine, love, and procreation. Dice’s looming, brooding persona, makes it clear from the beginning that he is the leader and the deliverer of the rules (some of which only he alone may break without consequence). He keeps a door locked in which no one is to ever go beyond, and people have to prove their devotion if they are to truly get close to him. Berie receives the ultimatum that she has three days to make up her mind if she will leave or if she will live with the Ash Family for forever.
As the novel slowly reveals itself, we realize the family isn’t so much a family as it is a cult. This becomes most evident in one of the novel’s best subplots about a pregnancy involving Berie and two friendly women named Queen and Pear.
Readers of The Ash Family should know that there are as many turns in this novel as there are for drivers heading up a summit of a real-life North Carolina mountain. Characters appear. Others disappear. The past comes back. Sometimes, I think, even the future becomes the present. Dektar handles it all with great finesse, and the narrative holds up firmly until it reaches its (mostly) satisfying ending.
Although it’s tempting to rush through this near-thriller, The Ash Family is the kind of novel that should be read slowly. Yes, it’s propulsive and ridden with moments of tension, but savoring on the layered secrets found inside the unraveling Ash Family’s farm is the real treat here.
The Ash Family presents itself with a grand scope. Dektar shows how the dangers of power—whether it’s an abuse of it or our desire to attain it—can lead to our downfall. Yes, Dice is evil, and he does terrible things to benefit himself, but Berie also has her own moments of cruelty as she fights for her place among the top-tier of the Ash Family. It’s in Berie’s desire to belong that Dektar best explores how we can confuse manipulation with sacrifice. The two are opposites, certainly, but aren’t they commenced on the same path? Dektar reminds us that we are the ones responsible for our own destinies—whether they are to be of light or of dark.
The Ash Family is an engaging book about searching for ourselves in a deeply complicated world. Those on the inside of the Ash Family’s farm are certainly blinded, but so are those on the outside. By power, by desire, by selfishness.
When I turned the last page, I was reminded that we are all searching, and, like Berie, we don’t always know for what until we find it. And who knows when that will be.
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar
Simon & Schuster
Published April 9, 2019
Bradley Sides is the author of Those Fantastic Lives: And Other Strange Stories. He lives with his wife in Huntsville, Alabama, where, on most days, he can be found teaching writing at Calhoun Community College. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.