Cults are the subject of a bizarre and ofttimes grotesque fascination. Most of us, as outsiders, wonder why anyone would ever join one. But in her début novel, “The Ash Family,” Molly Dektar attempts to erase the distinction between “us” and “them.” She poses pertinent questions such as, “Why did you join?” and “After realizing what is was, why did you stay?”
The novel follows Berie, an impressionable youth, who is supposed to be leaving home to attend college when she decides, on impulse, not to board the plane that will take her to her university. Intending instead to return home to North Carolina and seek shelter at her boyfriend’s squat, Berie sets out to board a bus back to Durham.
At the bus stop, she meets Bay, a member of the eponymous Ash Family, who talks to her about knowledge and love in a way that, she believes, approaches truth. Soon, rather than catching her bus back to Durham, Berie finds herself heading toward the Ash Family Farm, where she intends to live a “more essential” and less materialistic life.
Upon arrival, she comes under the authority of a man named Dice, the head of this makeshift family. He renames her “Harmony,” and through a combination of stories and other subtle manipulations, convinces her to stay on the farm. It soon becomes clear to Berie, however, that things are not as ideal as they seem. Cut off from modern medicines and other products of the “fake world,” Berie soon finds herself in dire straights while rumors circulate about the true fates of “departed friends.”
This propulsive novel has a pull like an undertow. I found myself completely engrossed in Berie’s story, even though she is a not always likeable. Some readers may also find, however, that while Dektar is initially so careful in building suspense, the end happens rather quickly, and Dektar fails to ponder the implications of what these events will mean for Berie’s future. Yet, Dektar still brilliantly seduces readers, and we find ourselves quite like Berie, lulled into a false sense of security in which we are content to ignore the dangers even though they are in plain sight. Dektar’s terrifying conceit shows us how humans are sometimes frighteningly open to suggestion and demonstrates how vulnerable we truly are.