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The Ash Family

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The Ash Family by Molly Dektar is a quandary of a novel. On one hand I read it with the awkward zeal of an individual trying not to view gruesome carnage while on the other I felt nothing but repugnance, mostly, for the main character.

I realize that it’s not always necessary to like the main character, but in a story about a teenager being lost and joining a cult disguised as a commune, it feels necessary. Despite her affection for animals and nature, Beryl/Berie/Harmony feels more like an automaton, trying to make people like her than an actual person with feelings and empathy, or sympathy, for that matter. Her apathetic feelings toward a mother who seems to be trying to do everything for her daughter seems cold. If it weren’t for her caring for animals, I’d be pretty quick to label her as a sociopath for her emotionless dealings with the people around her. She lusts after Bay, the man who manipulated her and preyed upon her, who brought her to the Ash family by seduction, but that seems to be her sole emotional vulnerability. I would say that she was brain-washed, but her behavior does not show significant change to warrant that label.

In a typical novel, Queen, a former drug user who Bay picked up during her lowest point, probably would have been the “heroine.” She has desires and feelings that the reader can relate to. She sees with clear vision what is going on around her and cannot totally subjugate herself to Dice, the main man. Harmony feels superior to Queen. Harmony feels that she is the good girl. But it’s Queen who shows hope.

As for the beliefs of this particular family/cult, I was stymied. Infrequently (if at all) do we read about people who care about the environment using warfare as their means of action. Using climate change as the catalyst for violence seemed wrong and out-of-character. Maybe that’s just hope on my part.

There are several scenes that are not for the faint of heart, especially for this vegetarian, animal-loving reader. Others might have different reactions.

Dektar’s writing is wonderful, however. Her descriptions are detailed and fluid, demonstrating an ear for rhythmic, flowing prose. Her words paint beautiful pictures when she’s describing the environment of the southern Appalachia.

As for the wolves and mountain lions roaming in the mountains near Asheville, NC, I wondered if this was a metaphor.

The Ash Family is a page turner, no doubt. I read it, completely spellbound for most of it (not the gruesome parts, which almost made me stop reading), in a day. To me, that always says a lot about a book. My major complaint is that Harmony was not a likable character where I felt she needed to be. I wish the cult had been formed around something other than climate change. The writing was excellent. That sums it up.

After that, you can judge for yourself if you think that this is a book that you might like to read.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Teenager Berie makes a snap decision to get in a car with a stranger named Bay. Her life will never be the same as she is pulled into the web of a charismatic cult leader who runs an off-the-grid farm. A jarring and thought-provoking story of exploiting vulnerability and highlighting how easily someone can get sucked into mind games and manipulative tactics of a madman.

*will post in additional online venues upon publication.
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Book Review: The Ash Family
Author: Molly Dektar
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Review Date: April 4, 2019

From the blurb:
“When a young woman leaves her family—and the civilized world—to join an off-the-grid community headed by an enigmatic leader, she discovers that belonging comes with a deadly cost, in this lush and searing debut novel.”

This is an extraordinary debut novel from a writer from North Carolina, which is where this story takes place. For a good portion of the novel, I thought I was reading a memoir, until I looked again, and saw that it’s a work of fiction.

The characters in this book are some of the most detailed and believable characters I’ve read in a novel. Particularly, Berie/Harmony, the protagonist. And Dice, the “family” leader, as the antagonist. I have participated in a number of cults over the course of my life. I think there’s just something from a very young age that fascinated me about institutional environments. I had an intense desire to attend West Point starting when I was eight years old after reading one of those West Point novels. I am 66, so West Point was not open to women around the time I went to college, or I believe I would have given my most to be able to attend there.

Given my background with cult membership, I thought the author was writing a memoir, because she described life in a cult so accurately. The obedience to the leader figure; the strange and abnormal ideas followers come to accept as true; the strong groupthink; the ostracization and cruelty when a member stepped out of line; the paranoia about the world outside the cult was so on-point. All these things I have experienced, and were part of this story, so kudos to the author for getting cult attributes right.

The descriptions of nature were just beautiful. The “family” lived in the deeply isolated woods of North Carolina, and spent all their hours working to sustain themselves with animals and planting. Plus her descriptions of the surrounding woods, streams and animals were breathtaking. So much of the language and imagery were just stunning. 

The plot arc’d tightly. I felt so much underlying tension and fear as the story progressed, all the way through the climax and resolution of violence, death and destruction. 

I highly, highly recommend this novel. 5+ stars! I can’t wait to read what Molly Dektar writes next.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for allowing me an early look at this superlative work of fiction. 

This review will be posted on NetGalley, Goodreads and Amazon. 

#netgalley #simon&schuster #theashfamily #mollydektar
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Berie had felt lost and out of place in her own life, so when she met Bay on the way to attend college for a future she didn't even want, it was easy to follow him. She joined the collective family that he was part of and became Harmony. There were no possessions, no relationships, no children, no sense of self separate from that of the Ash Family, which was led by Dice. Dice was charismatic and held sway over them all.

This is an interesting concept for a plot and a wonderful first novel. I don't like Berie, and as a weak-willed character practically asking for others to tell her what to do and how to think, she's not the usual character I prefer to read about. But there's a fascination here, and the way her thoughts twist about and bend under others' points of view is brilliantly done. There are also important questions hovering around the edges of the novel and Berie/Harmony's consciousness: what lengths should people go to fight off conglomerates intent on destroying nature? What makes up a family? What is the best balance between individuality and communal living?

I never really connect well with Berie because while she's the reader's way into the collective of the Ash Family, she doesn't really affect change. Others affect her, push her, change how she thinks about the nature of the real world and what her purpose truly is. I feel almost as if she's an unreliable narrator as a result, which is a really tricky thing to pull off well. Here, it's not necessarily Berie's fault, but that everyone around her is willing to lie to get what they want from her. Their pasts are stories that change depending on who tells it or are actively being rewritten because Dice tells them that there's no point to living in the past. This aspect of Berie never really changes from the beginning to the end of the novel, so it almost feels unfinished in a way. There is a lot that happens over the course of the novel, and it draws me in throughout all of it. I'm just not sure I like anyone in the book at all.
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I must admit that during the first 25% of this book, I contemplated putting it down and DNFing it. I normally find these types of scenarios fascinating but for some reason I just did not click with this main character, Berie. I felt like she was overly naïve and a bit stupid if I’m being perfectly honest. Who in their right mind would go off with a random guy they met at a bus stop to join his off-the-grid commune in the mountains?! Especially considering the way this guy is described. He sounds super dirty, and a bit slimy. At one point, it was described in detail that his pants are basically water proof because they are never washed and are incredibly grimy. And his feet smell like vinegar. Yeah… no thanks. And yet, Berie seems to idolize him and almost falls in love with him at first sight. 
When Berie arrives on the farm, she is told not to talk about the past… the “fake world” as they call it. Everyone has left their “fake world” name behind and have been given a new name by the man who created this family, Dice. Everyone works for the good of the family. Berie, now called Harmony, is put in charge of taking care of the sheep. She tries to gain the trust of both Bay and Dice so she can go on one of their protests. So many crazy things happen that make you really wonder why anybody agreed to live there. Everyone shares everything. Clothes, beds, partners, etc. No couples. No children. No leaving unless given a task or permission. 
I was bit underwhelmed by the ending. Shit hits the fan but then it seems to end just as quickly as it began. I felt like the ending could have been drawn out a little more but I don’t want to say how because that would give it away. Overall, I’m kind of in the middle on this book. I didn’t not like it, but I also didn’t really like it. If you are interested in cults and commune type scenarios you might be interested in reading this book.
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The Ash Family wasn't what I was expecting. In the beginning, we have Beryl, but by the end we have Harmony. Or is it Beryl again? I'm going to say neither, but that's my own opinion. Harmony went through quite a lot during her stay with the complex Ash family, and at the end of tenacious times, you never end up being the same person you were before or during. 

I enjoyed this book even though it left me confused. One moment I like Harmony, and then the next I didn't. Which makes her an interesting and realistic character. All of the characters in The Ash Family are multi-faceted in a way. You never quite know what you're getting from some of them, and the others whose personality you pegged from the beginning, you either love them or hate them. 

Overall, I really liked this one.
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This is an impressive debut about a young woman seeking she knew not what who found a cult which fancied itself as a family.  Berie didn't want to go to college- she didn't get on the plane- and when she ran into Bay, she totally bought into his idea of a family off the grid.  Little did she know or understand what that might mean.  What it might mean when Dice, the leader, made certain pronouncements.  What it might mean when Queen became pregnant.  What it might mean when an "action" went sour or when the family all got sick at once.  Framed by the seasons, this is oddly strongest when it describes Berie - renamed Harmony- and her sheep or the other things necessary to keep the family alive.  Berne's boyfriend Isaac is not a particularly strong character (and minor quibble- how did Harmony know it was Valentine's Day when there are no calendars?). Regular readers of literary fiction will recognize the MFA influence in the early parts of this well written novel but that eventually falls away as Dektar gets deeper into the story.  Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.  This one will make you feel Berie slowly become Harmony and slowly lose herself to the cult. A very good read.
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Thanks to NetGalley, Simon and Schuster, and Molly Dektar for the opportunity to read and review her debut novel.  3.5 stars for a good read and a new author to watch for!

Berie is headed off to college; her mother sold family jewelry in order to help pay her way.  But she can't make herself get on the plane.  At a bus stop, she meets Bay, a mysterious, seductive man who convinces her to come to the Ash Family Farm with him.  Cut off from her boyfriend, her mother, and her life, her name is changed to Harmony and she settles into the commune, run by a man called Dice.  But all is definitely not peace and love.  There are many rules and danger to those who break them or leave.

I'm always fascinated with stories of cults - history is ripe with stories of seemingly smart individuals who get sucked into following a charismatic individual and end up losing their lives in one way or another.  This story was a peek into communal living and how people change in that environment.  But I was never quite as connected to the story as I wanted to be - still a good read.
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Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC. How I obtained this book does not influence my review in any way.

I wanted to like this book, I really did... but at about 15% in I lost interest. If you hit that point in a book, it's hard to recover. I had a hard time with the main character, I didn't connect with her. The writing style was not my favorite. For some reason it just didn't pull me into the story the way I hoped it would. I know this book has its perfect reader, but sadly I'm not it... at least not right now.
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I went into this book expecting a captivating cult story and boy did it not really deliver. This book for me was 2 stars up until the end, which pushed it over into 3 stars. The main issue for me was the protagonist. There were times when I was just shaking my head at her naivete and stupidity. It took no time at all for her to drop out of college and join this cult. While other characters did question set rules and things within the cult (a big saving grace otherwise I might have demoted another star) the main character known as Berie/Harmony did not. I know she was supposed to be a young teenager, malleable and striving for acceptance to the point of being willing to do anything, but I just couldn't buy it. Another difficulty I had was with Dice. I felt as if we didn't really get a good character explanation of who he was or why he was so captivating. I just didn't connect with why all of these people were so willingly following him to begin with. All in all, the book pretty much dragged the whole time and I couldn't believe our protagonist was still in the cult. The ending picked up a little, and I found myself pretty invested. 

Short review: Read this book if you want a slow-paced, cult fiction with not much at stake. If you're in this for the extremely twisted cult with the charismatic leader, don't bother. 

I received an advanced copy of the book via NetGalley. This does not impact my review.
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The Ash Family tells the story of a disaffected young woman who was pressured to go to college who really needed a gap year to figure out what she wanted. She doesn’t get on the plane to school and is soon picked up by a young man who invites her to join him with his family on a farm. The reader quickly realizes he is a cult recruiter and this won’t end well, but we’re seeing it all through her perspective and at first, it is wonderful. She feels a sense of purpose in her life for the first time.

Of course, it is not what she expected. She has a lot of work, hard work. The community reinforces its norms with peer pressure and with accountability sessions similar to the struggle sessions of the Chinese revolution, deeply humiliating, psychological torture that continues until a person breaks under the pressure of communal disapproval. We, as readers, can see the way the leader and the members of the commune enforce a new social order and strip away the past.


I liked The Ash Family quite a bit. It gave us a good depiction of how the self can be broken by a cult. We also saw how doubt and disquiet can grow and be fostered. Harmony was ripe for recruitment because she had no goals for her future. I also like the ambiguity at the end. Dektar excels at describing the land, with active and colorful language that makes it all come alive. This is an emotionally compelling book that offers us very contrasting characters from the charismatic leader to the enigmatic recruiter and from the indomitable Queen to the pliable Harmony. The characters are credible and complex, making for a very compelling story.

The Ash Family will be released April 9th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Ash Family at Simon & Schuster
Molly Dektar on Instagram
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Thank you NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an advanced readers copy of this book.  I was really excited about this book as the subject of cults fascinates me.  Unfortunately this book was lacking.  I found I did not care about the characters or the purpose of the cult.  I do not think I will remember this book in a few days.
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I really did try to get into this book, but it was a bit of a struggle. I'm usually all about reading about cults, but this was a bit draggy for me. Beautiful writing, though! Just...slow to start.
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Berie doesn’t really want to go to college, but her mom wants her to go.  On her way to college, she runs into Bay who introduces her to the idea of the cult and tells her she can stay for three days or the rest of her life.  He talks up the intentional community, how she will have everything she needs and her life will have purpose - just the way I am sure a recruiter for a cult might do.  Berie gets there and is not sure about the whole thing.  The cult is fighting a corporate entity that wants to develop the land around them and at times, Berie is into it and other times, she thinks they are taking it too far.  She starts to feel like she has no way out.

I liked the plot and the storyline of this book, but I did not like any of the characters and I did not like the writing style.  The writing is very literary and dreamy and relies on metaphor.  The characters have a dreamy, ethereal way of speaking that while it does sound like people in a cult, got really old after a while.  Personally, I would have preferred if Berie at least was more likable —she was a brat whose mother did so much for her and tried so hard and wanted the best for her daughter and sacrificed to send her to college and Berie just meets some guy and ditches all of her mom’s efforts to pay for college.  I would have preferred the writing style was more conversational and traditional.
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I really dislike writing negative reviews but, with this book, I can’t see any way around it. I could not finish this book. The cult members and “false world” references completely turned me off. (For me personally, the frequent use of the term “false world” brought to mind “fake news”.) I could not muster up any compassion for the characters in this story. In addition, the writing itself really needed some work. I really appreciate the advance egalley from Simon & Schuster. So sorry but I just cannot recommend this book.
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This was a quick read for me and sucked me in from the start. The writing is different and I loved the beautiful descriptions of nature/food. That said I spent the entire book being so frustrated with Berie/Harmony. I understand she was lost and trying to find her way but the fact she was so easily manipulated by Bay and Dice drove my cray cray. For that reason I could only give it 3 stars but I’m looking forward to reading more by this author. Her writing is so unique and atmospheric!
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This intriguing story follows “Harmony” as she discovers and lives with a cult - or, as they call it, a new family. They live off the grid and most of the book is about the day-to-day aspects of this unusual lifestyle. Cults fascinate me because I just don’t uderstand why people join them. Harmony wasn’t a very likable character, in my opinion, but I was still rooting for her the whole book.
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When a young woman leaves her family—and the civilized world—to join an off-the-grid community headed by an enigmatic leader, she discovers that belonging comes with a deadly cost, in this lush and searing debut novel.

    At nineteen, Berie encounters a seductive and mysterious man at a bus station near her home in North Carolina. Shut off from the people around her, she finds herself compelled by his promise of a new life. He ferries her into a place of order and chaos: the Ash Family farm. There, she joins an intentional community living off the fertile land of the mountains, bound together by high ideals and through relationships she can’t untangle. Berie—now renamed Harmony—renounces her old life and settles into her new one on the farm. She begins to make friends. And then they start to disappear.

 

My Thoughts: We meet Berie, the first person narrator of The Ash Family, as she veers off course, drawn in by a seductive man named Bay. Instead of flying off to college in Virginia, she leaves the airport and heads to a bus station where they meet. Together they journey to the farm community that promises to fulfill her need for something bigger than herself.

Berie apparently lacks something in her life that might be satisfied by such a community, and while I was almost sucked into its promise, I couldn’t understand what was missing in our protagonist that led her to such a community. We know little about her life up to this point, so her actions seem blindly unmotivated. If she had suffered abuse at home, or if she were fleeing something frightening, I could almost see why this young woman might be drawn in to its charms. Later we learn more about how sometimes not feeling anything at all can lead to wrong-footed choices.

The characters and the setting were beautifully described, and I could sense the appeal of Nature and a desire to preserve it in all its glory. Protecting the environment and people from the “fake world” could be a lure for someone like Beryl, now named Harmony.

It did not take long, however, to feel a sense of stultifying horror as nothing seemed to live up to that promise. A mix of cruelty and kindness, punishment and reward were the confusing elements that felt like a crazy-making scheme designed to hook in new family members. Searching for that sense of family and true purpose were powerful enough to blind new members to the underlying dangers…until it was too late.

In the end, we see hope come in unexpected forms, and the story leaves off just on the way to finding new possibilities. 4 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.
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When I was approached to review The Ash Family, I was a little hesitant about reviewing it. As weird as this sounds, I didn’t like the vibe that I got from the blurb. But, since I don’t reject publisher book requests through my email, I accepted. Now that I have read it, I wish that I didn’t. It bored me.

I could see why Berie/Harmony was such an easy mark for Bay. She was naive. I could also see why she was able to fall under the sway of Dice. She was searching for a father figure. But, I didn’t like her. She came across as selfish. Her memories of her mother cemented that fact. Her behavior while in the cult highlighted it also. She refused to learn other jobs. She tried to form a relationship with Bay when it was against the rules. There were points in the book where I had doubts if they would keep her. To top it off, her actions at the end of the book disturbed me.

The plotline was slow. It crept along. I can’t tell y’all how many times I fell asleep reading this book. Even the exciting parts, like the Queenie’s miscarriage or the end of the book, were boring. I had figured out what Dice’s deal was early in the book. So, I had to push myself to finish reading it.

I do think that the story had potential, which saved this review from being a 1-star review. But it was bogged down by the slow plotline and unlikable characters.

I also liked how the author showed what life would be like in a cult. I also liked that the author explained what life was like living off the grid. She didn’t sugarcoat anything.

The end of the book left me scratching my head. I had no clue what was going to happen to Berie/Harmony or the cult. Well, I had a good idea of what happened to the cult. But Berie/Harmony? No. Nothing was wrapped up. I didn’t get to see if Berie/Harmony got help or even reconciled with her mother. It was disappointing for me to read.

I would give The Ash Family an Adult rating. There is sex (nothing graphic). There is language. There is violence. I would recommend that no one under the age 21 read this book.

I would not reread The Ash Family. I also would not recommend this book to family and friends.

I would like to thank the publisher, the author, and NetGalley for allowing me to read and review The Ash Family.

All opinions stated in this review of The Ash Family are mine.

Have you read The Ash Family?

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Berie seems to be at odds with life. She is heading off to college, wanting to leave her mother, not really wanting to leave her ex. She comes across a man named Bay who tells her he can take her to a place where she will find her answers. His “family” is run by a man named Dice. He teaches them to live off the land, buck the system, prepare for the worst. Berie becomes Harmony and tries to adapt to a whole new way of life. Things are not all peaches and cream though.  Are there ever in a cult? What happens to those who want to leave?

I always wonder about what makes a person become so involved in a cult. I am still wondering about Berie. I did not get the vibes that she was really that lost but she sure becomes more so while she is at the commune. I also did not get that enigmatic feel from Dice. That is not to say that the writing was not great, because it was. The descriptions of the day to day life were deep and I felt like I was there. You actually felt like you were as dirty as their bodies are described. Made me want to soak in a hot tub. Berie was not a very likable character but I really loved Queen. My heart broke for her.

Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for an advance copy of this book.
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