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By the way: Gas line in a small town


Unlike many of the writers she knows, author Kate Brandes did not spend a childhood dreaming about writing a novel.

Nevertheless, she did write one, an amazing book that draws heavily on her career as an environmental scientist and her love of the outdoors and especially apples.

Married and the mother of two sons, she lives in Riegelsville and teaches geology at Moravian College in Bethlehem. Her husband, David, a civil engineer, teaches at Lafayette College in Easton.

Her novel, “The Promise of Pierson Orchard,” published in 2017, earned praise from the prestigious Kirkus Reviews, which called it “… an eloquent portrait of a small town struggling with compromise.”

Admitting how precarious the career of a writer can be, Kate said she sent her manuscript out to 50 publishers, and received 50 rejections, each one a blow to the heart. Still determined, she gave it a final shot with a few more. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing in Oregon snapped it up.

Another author, Catherine McKenzie, called the novel “As sweet and tart as the apples … so vivid I felt as if I had been there.”

I share her opinion. I loved the book. It’s a beautiful story and it offers an even-handed picture of what happens when frackers descend on a small town. It’s an especially meaningful book here where some environmentalists fear the construction of a natural gas pipeline is a precursor to fracking and will destroy the Delaware Valley.

The novel outlines some of the problems fracking can bring, but Kate also said, “There’s a lot of misinformation out there – on both sides.”

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling method used to extract natural gas or oil from rock formations.

Kate’s small town is the fictitious Minden, which she said is a compilation of small towns in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She grew up in one, Alexandria in Huntingdon County, went off to Penn State where she earned a bachelor’s in geology, and then to North Carolina State for a master’s in geology, a field open only to men even as late as the mid-20th century. “I didn’t think about it at the time, but when I look back, I realized I had worked only with men.”

Kate worked in the field as a groundwater specialist, first in remediation, and later as a consultant for the prevention of groundwater problems. She is that rare combination of scientist/artist who not only sees but can also interpret the beauty in the scientific world. She also is an accomplished watercolorist, who has exhibited her work locally for several years, and loves to garden.

Although Kate didn’t have that writer’s dream, she said. “I always loved fiction and I read all the time.” She has published several short stories, but a novel offered new challenges. “I had to learn how to tell a story, learn what comes first, how to convey it in the most emotional way.”

She worked on her novel for six years. “Sometimes in 15-minute increments when the children were small,” she said. Her sons, Owen, 13, and Sam, 10, go to Palisades schools. When her novel was finished Kate circulated it for criticism and suggestions from a community of writers and found herself accepting and rejecting advice from her readers. “It was hard sometimes to tell what was the right advice,” she said.

A solid scientist, Kate also understands the wonder as well as the inconsistencies of human behavior and her characters pulse with life as they try to untangle their fears and passions. The novel is the story of a dysfunctional family, childhood abandonment, tragedy and betrayal, sibling rivalry and a disintegrating marriage. It is told against the shattering arrival of an energy company promising riches to a poor rural community. In addition to the marriage at stake and other family trauma, drilling endangers a beloved family-owned apple orchard.

Kate gave so much life and detail to cultivation and chores at the orchard, I asked her if she had worked in an orchard, and I was surprised when her response was, “No, but I love picking apples. Every year I go to Phillips Farm in Holland Township (N.J.). I love learning about apples and I read a long memoir written about apples.” She was able to turn that interest into what seemed to be an orchard so real it seemed almost to be a character in the novel.

Kate is now working on a second novel. Her first, “The Promise of Pierson Orchard,” is available from

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