The Ash Family by Molly Dektar
“You can’t be a non-conformist if you don’t drink coffee,” the South Park goth kids famously told Stan during his cultural initiation. Molly Dektar’s debut novel The Ash Family invokes the same paradox of a group that rejects mainstream society’s prescribed narratives, yet executes its own rules with equal rigidity. The story also features a dash of “Captain Fantastic,” both of which take their heavy ideologies off the grid, living in a self-sufficient commune in ultimate service of the environment, no matter what the cost. With this many derivative elements, the novel might have succeed had it used that equation to deliver its own unique bang. The Ash Family unfortunately hedges its bets, and fails to commit to a memorable path in the same way its central character never truly goes native.
Nineteen-year-old Beryl has drifted through adolescence fueled mostly by the wind of her mother’s doting. On the way to her first semester in college, she’s approached by a man at a bus station who invites her to depart from the fakeness of society, to instead give his separate community an extended look. The titular Ash Family, led by the charismatic Dice, has a house and farm isolated in the wilderness, staffed by several devoted members of various ages. Among their principles include living off the land without waste, casting aside their previous names for a more “true” moniker, and swearing off the concept of possessions—including any kind of romantic couples. All of this in service of environmental preservation, often by means of violent activism. Though Beryl is pulled in by the group’s allure, as her tenure continues she repeatedly feels the push/pull of where she actually belongs. As things get gritter, clear answers and a concrete sense of identity grow increasingly elusive.
On its surface, this kind of plot summary sounds like it will inevitably descend into cheap thrills. What’s it going to be, a sex cult? An assassination ring? The first sections read like the first hour of a horror movie, full of hints and plenty of tension, but no delivery. Where it goes instead is exactly where it promised: excruciatingly extensive service of environmental well-being, which takes priority over any sense of the self. Readers will of course be anxious that our young vulnerable female protagonist might be taken advantage of, perhaps sent to slaughter on the front lines of a violent protest operation. Yet ironically, Beryl is continually denied participation in these missions, despite her continued begging.
The Ash Family is not throwing a party, and doesn’t have any humor to offer you. Compare this to a TV series like Breaking Bad, a show with such grim sequences that viewers would go depressed if not for intermittent bursts of hilarity. Dektar, meanwhile, bravely forgoes this safety net, but it isn’t well-executed. In all its stone-faced delivery, the narrative beats you with chapter after chapter of chores, lectures, rules, and identity uncertainty; this really takes a heavy toll on the reader but without much redeeming quality. It may have been easier to cheer for Beryl had she gradually gone native, but in her characteristic late-teen insecurity, she does nothing but waver.
Like it or hate it, this aimlessness is the deliberate point of the book. Beryl is a walking contradiction: She wants to reject society and be her own person, yet thrives on being told exactly what to do (just as long as it isn’t her mother issuing the orders). She’s supposedly eager to learn all the farm’s tasks and be self sufficient, yet in the book’s first sections she constantly recalls how her current situations compare to experiences with her previous fake-world boyfriend Issac. She’s a ball in a pinball machine, violently bouncing off this flipper and that bumper, with no authorship of her own momentum. It’s hard to root for her to take a stand, because there’s scarcely a hint of that possibility in sight.
There are no mirrors allowed on the entire Ash Family property, a rule appropriately enforced in service of depletion of the self, done so to bolster collective whole. Sadly, this lack of introspection is a fitting description of the entire book, which doesn’t do enough inward examination to decide what it wants to say, settling instead to present a derivative snapshot of early adulthood anchorlessness. If nothing else, the cover is totally gorgeous. Just look at it. It was designed by Kimberly Glyder. Bravo, Kimberly Glyder. You’ve thought very deliberately about who to be and what to create.