Imagine finding an agrarian paradise that promises an authentic experience lived in harmony with the natural world. Sprinkle in a sense of purpose and meaning. Slip in a nagging sense that those who disappear or depart from this idyllic life may have frequently come to some malicious harm, and you have the plot premise that undergirds Molly Dektar’s ambitious debut novel, The Family Ash.
Berie, the college-bound protagonist, decides against boarding her flight to college at the University of Richmond, departs the airport, and ends up camping for a weekend in the mountains of Western North Carolina. There, at a bus station, she meets the charismatic Bay, whose stories of the Ash Family homestead lure her to a life that, on the surface, promises her a community and a way of being that holds a meaning that exceeds the conventions of college. Trading in the “fake world” of society for the real world of the Ashers, Berie, renamed Harmony by the Asher founder and guru, Dice, engagesher dream life—tending sheep, making cheeses, harvesting the food on her daily table—though it’s a dream that slowly unsettles and then goes up in literal flames.
Dektar researched utopian societies in American history—the Shakers, the Oneida community—as well as more recent manifestations such as the Farm in Tennessee, which had over 1,000 people living in it at its height. Indeed, a phrase employed by the Farm’s denizens—“Three days or the rest of your life”—becomes a mantra for all potential new Ashers. The sense of resurrection and salvation implicit in the phrase imbues the early experiences of Berie/Harmony.
Dektar was equally inspired by contemporary active communities: for example, sanctuary and queer communes. “It’s important for me that there be a balance in the presentation of the Ash Family,” Dektar explains. “I kept saying that this is a cult I would join.”
In addition to the research, Dektar had experiences that provide the novel’s setting and events with verisimilitude; she has farmed in Western North Carolina, camped in the Pisgah National Forest, and spent time at Turtle Island near Boone, North Carolina with Eustace Conway, protagonist of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. Dektar also farmed as part of WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). “I wanted,” Dektar explains, “to reconnect to the land. I was goat and sheep herding in Europe.”
Those relationships with the natural world serve to strengthen the sense of nature as a palpable character in the novel. The seasons serve, in part, as the novel’s structure; nature inspired the book. “I wanted the protagonist embedded in the land, so the cult became the vehicle for Berie’s journey,” Dektar says.
Technology is remarkably absent from the routines of the Ashers. The democratic utopian spirit and simplicity of their lives is reflected in the music that they enjoy and practice: Shape Note songs and Sacred Hymns. Dektar herself is enthusiastic about this American musical tradition. “It’s a communal singing tradition popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The singers were frequently self-taught, and it didn’t matter if you had a trained voice,” Dektar explains. “There was no instrument to play, so, again, no professionalism involved. There was no central authority, conductor or the like. These archaic songs are suffused with a sense of memento mori. I wanted that mood to suffuse the novel.”
Death, indeed, lurks as part of the Asher lives: the animals slaughtered for sustenance, the brutality of winter on the land. In addition, unsettling deaths haunt Asher lore and Harmony’s experience; these serve as page-turning thriller elements that drive the reader forward.
In addition to her writing (a second novel is ready to be sent to her agent), Dektar works at a nonprofit research institute whose mission involves addressing social problems. “Our conventional behaviors are increasingly destructive or unsustainable,” Dektar notes. “I admire, for example, the scale of the ambition underlying the New Green Deal. We know alternative ways are possible. I took a class at Harvard on climate change. The teacher, quoting John Holdren, maintained a mantra: We have to mitigate, to adapt, and suffer. In our efforts to achieve large-scale change, there will be consequences.”
Nonetheless, hopeful possibilities drive Dektar’s thinking about the world—and about her debut novel’s protagonist. “Berie is,” Dektar observes, “in some ways, me. I share some of her Romantic hopes about the way we should live our lives. Berie is searching for the sublime. And you can’t have a sublime experience with a cell phone.”
J. W. Bonner writes frequently for Kirkus Reviews, and he teaches writing and the Humanities at Asheville School (N.C.).