16 December 2019

The Ash Family, by Molly Dektar

It's been quite a while since I've devoured a book with such gusto, but in a slow and deliberate manner. I took my time reading The Ash Family, by Molly Dektar, and each section had me contemplating the actions and choices made by Berie, the main character. I was dumbfounded to realize that I wasn't shocked one bit with how simple it was for her to fall down the wrong hole in life. 

There are 1264 ratings on Goodreads as of this writing, but only a 3 and 1/2 star review and I was stunned by some thoughts because I think this story is that good. I don't often post reviews on this little corner of the blogosphere nowadays, but I had to for this one. Maybe it's the fall season when I read it and I was ready for a disturbing tale; maybe it was because I happened to be traveling through the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina at the exact time I was reading this book that helped me feel the atmosphere even more so, but I started reading this before my vacation and I live in Puerto Rico. While it might sound a bit corny, I was sitting in Puerto Rico with all of its heat and humidity and the sweat of everyday life, and I was seriously swept away into the cold of the Ash Family's world. I was so excited to join into reading reviews of this book and relishing on shared similar responses by other readers, but alas, I will resign myself to the realization that this will be a sleeper hit, that in a few more years we'll all be wishing we had read it sooner or with a different perspective.

The Ash Family is a quiet story about Berie, a nineteen-year-old who feels passionately about living, but not exactly certain how to fit herself into it all. She's out of step with others, not ever feeling a tie to her own mother or her boyfriend, Isaac. It's in Isaac that Berie may have learned some foundational element of defying authority, which interests her, but instead of fighting it from the outside, Isaac chooses to do so from the inside, by being part of that traditional and conventional life and that decision is significant for her, and it destroys her hero worship view of him. It disappoints her greatly, and you could question why she feels compelled to live her life through others and their choices, but it circles right back to how Berie wants to be led by someone else. She's afraid to make the big decisions, she's never genuinely felt at home in anything, and she's listlessly living that conventional life where her very next step after high school and a broken relationship is the traditional next jaunt of going to college. Instead, Berie skips the flight and takes a bus to anywhere and meets a random man named Bay, so different from anyone she's ever known. Somehow, Bay meets her initial needs of security, comfort and being led. She's perfect to bring home to the Ash family.

The explanation of her decision to stay either "three days or the rest of her life" magnifies the intensity of the stress Berie feels to belong to something. Anything. Even this quiet and bizarre group of people who live off the land, who feed their sheep, who slaughter the animals and grow their vegetables, who values each item so preciously that a member can be punished for the accidental break of a glass jar. It's all so different from the very different and privileged living Berie had before heading off to college. And then before she fully realizes it all, she's now actually in so deep to what isn't a family, but very much so is a cult.

No, there isn't strong and signifiant action and rolling moments to move you through each page; instead it is a story of how easy it is to feel a sense of connection to something, to want to belong with others, to someone and how simply it can just become that way. We can all make fun of teenagers nowadays not knowing how easy they have it, but this is exactly the reason why some can unknowingly fall into the "wrong crowd." But truly, you don't have to be young, old, or have a terrible life - you can quite easily be led astray by the simplest of methods that can take a long amount of time or a quick amount, depending on the victim - which is exactly what brainwashing is, and what Berie experiences.

It is frightening how simple one can be led astray and I will spoil one thing for you - there isn't a big moment that significantly clarifies the choice she makes to live differently - as it is with anyone. There isn't always a momentous identified event that helps to distinguish life before and life after anything; there isn't always a "something.". Life is a natural progression of day in and day out decisions, and then before you know it, you're comfortable. It's home. It's your life. It's the family. Which is actually a cult, but I, as the reader, didn't feel it at first, I didn't realize it was all a cult, I felt comfortable with how Berie becomes part of it. There are characters who move in and out and it's completely dreamlike and terribly sad to feel how deeply embedded into this lifestyle she is ultimately drowning in.

But this happens. This is how cults are born, how innocent communities go astray and become different because of who might be leading them; it's so easy for someone like that to charm a young person who is unsure or insecure about their life and lead them down a different path. Berie is like that. She's unsure and confused about where she belongs, but she is also a little bit confident about wanting to do something different and she wants to earn her spot with the family, with Bay, with the main leader, Dice. She wants to be part of something else with them, more of whatever "action" it is they work on without her inclusion.

So when she meets Bay at the bus station, a strong and big and engaging man who seems like someone she should go with, she just does. She has nowhere else to go. She becomes part of the Ash Family, led by Dice, who gives her the new name of Harmony, and gives her tasks that make her grow callouses on her hands and slowly becomes entrenched in all of her decisions that she simply can't be sure what to do next without his guidance. She always wonders when she'll be trusted enough to be part of the "action." She is always working for that hope and feeling for someone to believe in her, and ultimately it is clear that if she just believed in herself, none of this ever would have happened. It is a frightening example of how anyone can so easily be pulled into a world which cuts them off to everything and everyone they know.

People might shake their heads when they watch documentaries on cults and I don't understand that - I can watch a film on a cult and feel the same but deep down, I am puzzled on what the difference is between a cult and anything else we so gleefully follow. In Corporate America, we faithfully follow our boss and their decisions whether we agree with them or not, we all say the same "company line." Of course, we obviously should choose to not cross the line with anything illegal, but seriously. It's not that hard to imagine how someone gets caught up in the wrong decisions. This is a powerfully told story of insecurity and the blind willingness to belong to anything at all.

I loved this story. I will be giving this 5 stars on Goodreads.

Disclosure: I downloaded this book for free from my library's Libby app.

About the Author (from her website)
Molly Dektar is from North Carolina and lives in Brooklyn. She received her MFA from Brooklyn 
College, where she was awarded the Himan Brown Award and the Brooklyn College Scholarship for Fiction. She is a graduate of Harvard College and was the recipient of the Louis Begley Fiction Prize. The Ash Family is her first novel.

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