Berie is one of the most emotionally defenseless people I’ve ever read about. She is so susceptible to others ordering her around, in fact, that I wanted to yank her right out of Molly Dektar’s The Ash Family for her own safety. I just knew that once Berie fell into the hands of the eponymous cult-like, backwood collective, that nothing good could come of it. Because of her near total lack of a sense of self-preservation, she is a perfect test subject to learn why people join and stay with people who will hurt them.
Early in The Ash Family, I imagined something I frequently imagine when I read. What if I was in the character’s shoes? What would I do in their situation? If I was in Berie’s shoes, this book would have come to a screeching halt very early on. Berie (or Harmony, as she is later renamed by the Ash Family’s leader) is on her way to college in Virginia when she meets a charismatic man named Bay. Berie doesn’t really want to go to college and, as we learn in flashbacks to her pre-Ash life, she is used to being told what to do by her mother and ex-boyfriend. Anyone else would have told Bay to get lost because of his presumptuous attitude—if not during their initial conversation, then definitely later on when he refuses to help Berie remove a large metal splinter from her hand. The fact that Bay won’t take the splinter out when Berie’s hand starts to get infected and swell up is a huge red flag. It’s also a very good indication of the attitudes of the Ash Family.
The Ash Family, who live in a remote part of the North Carolina mountains, are an eco-terrorist, anti-establishment cult ruled by Dice. Dice leads actions against local mining corporations and other polluters. He also rails against “the fake world,” by which he means the world outside of the Ash compound. The fake world also includes money (except for “donations” from new family members), modern medicine, and personal possessions. Berie, now Harmony, is set to caring for the sheep herd and hard manual labor. Though she tries her best, she is constantly criticized for not doing enough and for failing the family with her un-Ash thoughts. Dice also refuses to take her on the actions and protests that she desperately wants to join.
As the months pass in this speedy book, Harmony learns to sooth her own doubts, to ask even fewer questions, and to spout Dice’s contradictory and often nonsensical phrases when others ask her what she thinks. In return, she is told that the Ash Family will care for her. This care manifests as dumpster-dived food, a mattress in a hayloft, and scrounged clothes literally off the backs of the cult leaders. (There is plenty of evidence that the cult has either caused the deaths of previous Family members or allowed them to happen through neglect.) Harmony also lives in hope that Bay will sleep with her, although couples are forbidden. In another setting, Harmony would be the perfect submissive. Of course, having said that, I realized that Harmony is a submissive; something about being told what to do and mistreated feels right to her.
It was incredibly disturbing to me to see just how at-home Harmony feels with the Ash Family. She never runs, even though she has a few opportunities to leave. Other characters, like her returned ex-boyfriend, try to get her to run. I wish I could have reached into the book to scoop Harmony out of danger. Towards the end of The Ash Family, I had an epiphany: my belief that I knew better for this character was an awful lot like the beliefs held by Dice, Bay, and Harmony’s mother. We all thought that we knew what’s best for this very young woman. When someone puts themselves in your hands, it’s an awesome responsibility. Unfortunately for Harmony, it seems like everyone in her life who wants that responsibility only wants it so that they can use her for their own ends. The Ash Family, at the end, is an unsettling, frustrating, but enlightening novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.