“The Ash Family” (Simon & Schuster), by Molly Dektar
From the very first few pages of her debut novel about a cult, “The Ash Family,” author Molly Dektar’s substantial writing chops are abundantly clear.
“The house crouched in a whirl of leaves from the biggest hickory I’d ever seen. The wind spun the leaves in the air as thick and self-contained as the liquid in a snow globe.”
The house and its surrounding farm in rural North Carolina become as central to the plot as the residents themselves.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, 19-year-old Berie allows herself to be taken to the farm when she gets cold feet about starting college. She ditches her scheduled flight to Virginia and, instead, heads to a bus station where she’s picked up by an attractive young man and soon christened “Harmony.” She’s told she can stay three days or the rest of her life.
On her third day on the farm, she decides to stay or, rather, she doesn’t decide to leave and readers are plunged into Harmony’s new life. She revels in the beauty of nature. She learns to start a fire, churn butter and cheese, slaughter animals. But, all the while, darker motivations within the cult leader and Bay, the man who picked up Harmony at the bus station, linger and grow.
Like other stories before it, “The Ash Family” tries to uncover the mindset of Harmony — what drew her to the obviously dysfunctional cult and what keeps her there. No new ground is tread here, so plot-driven readers may find it disappointing.
But what raises this novel up several notches is the glorious writing, like Dektar’s description of an impending storm, “the clouds smeared into the ground as though by a giant’s thumb.” Or later, when Harmony describes her hopelessness: “All my thoughts had collapsed to a pinprick. I sat in the space between what happened and what I would say about it.”
All in all, it’s a compelling read about what motivates us as humans and the lengths to which we’ll go to satisfy our needs.