The Ash Family by Molly Dektar
Publication date: April 9, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Berie is on her way from her hometown of Durham to Richmond to attend college. College that is being paid for by financial aid and the sale of her mother’s heirloom jewelry. Despite this sacrifice, Berie doesn’t feel close to her mother. In fact, she’s sure her mother doesn’t understand and just wants her to go to college because she didn’t.
It was her dream, never mine, kicked off by her own mother, or her mother’s mother, the long line of women who never got out, but instead grew old and stiff as boards and knocked over one onto the next, leaning hard all the way to me.
But Berie doesn’t want to do the expected. She wants to live a completely unexpected life, so when she meets Bay at a bus stop and he tells her about his amazing family she knows she’s found what she’s been looking for. He says she’s welcome to visit them and decide if she wants to join them in their natural way of life. The Ash Family is their name and the title of Molly Dektar’s debut novel.
The family lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. There are almost 30 members, led by a man named Dice. There are no children, sex is prohibited, as are reading, writing, mirrors, and anything relating to the “fake world”. The family’s goal is to live off the land and try and save it through various planned “actions” against developers and coal companies. Once Berie decides to stay she is given a new family name, becoming Harmony. Her hair is cut off, both to clear her brain and to create a sense of family identity. Harmony is captivated by her new life. It’s hard labor from dawn to dusk, either working indoors, in the fields, or with the animals. She is a veritable sponge, absorbing all of Dice’s wisdom, believing that as he says:
…there could be no other place so absorbing, so thorough, that allowed us to break down the borders between self and nature, to install cooperation, not competition, as the guiding principle, something that would not change as long as we behaved as though there was no definite self.
She revels in her primal life, eating grubs, never bathing, and emptying out the pit below the outhouse.
All this, until a woman who knows Isaac arrives. As Harmony shows her around the farm, the woman recognizes her. After the woman decides not to stay, things with the family become less utopian. Harmony learns from her closest friend, Queen, that another family member disappeared before Harmony arrived. Then Queen herself is gone. The actions don’t go as planned and new family members are hard to come by. Yet even as Harmony starts to see the darker, much darker, side of the family, she makes no attempt to leave.
If I went back I’d have to apologize, I’d have to explain why I’d left. People would think I was silly. But here, I could forget what century I lived in. I could forget what country. I could forget who I was. I didn’t matter.
It’s clear from the very beginning of The Ash Family that Berie is a young woman in desperate need of an identity. In the opening chapters her constant references to her old boyfriend, Isaac, are annoying in the extreme, but not unrecognizable to anyone who’s been 19. Soon, though, as Dice and the community make Isaac’s activist ideals seem childish she completely concedes her sense of self as a commitment to what she believes to be a greater good. Dektar is skillful at illustrating the subtle progression from a questioning and curious mind to one that believes there is no such thing as self. It’s as fascinating as it is painful.
Throughout The Ash Family I had to remind myself repeatedly that Berie is 19. Otherwise I would have had a migraine from rolling my eyes too hard. I would have hightailed it away from the Ash family the minute they gave me someone else’s unwashed clothes to wear, especially at that age! My personal feelings aside, Dektar’s portrayal of communal life is riveting. Even after it becomes evident that the underpinnings of the community are not so wholesome there is still the pervading sense of peace to be found in people working together, with the land instead of against it, without all the endless interruptions and noise of the modern world. This exuberant backdrop provides an alluring counterpoint to the darker psychological drama going on. All told, The Ash Family is a compelling debut and Dektar a writer to watch.