Penning Perspective: Local writer Fred Burton tackles the controversial subject of fracking in the novel ‘Bountiful Calling’

When it comes to natural gas extraction from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale territory, novelist Jennifer Haigh got it right when she titled her 2016 novel on the subject “Heat & Light.”

In the debate over this process—hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”—there has been a lot of the former and perhaps not enough of the latter.

Local writer Fred Burton has done his best to redress this balance in his second novel, “Bountiful Calling.” Although Burton’s sympathies are with opponents of fracking, his novel is dedicated to “all the people of the Marcellus Shale region locked in unjust fighting because of fracking”.

It’s a nuanced exploration of the issue, balancing the views of environmentalists, drilling companies and their political advocates, and, most importantly, ordinary families affected by the process.

Burton, a Harrisburg resident, said his interest in fracking was sparked by attending several protests in the city opposing it in the early 2010s.

“I spoke with some of the people in the affected areas and understood why they thought their communities were under siege and they were collateral damage,” he said. “And I really wanted to find a way to give voice to what they were going through.”

Burton’s protagonist, Joe, is an idealistic young legislative aide to fictional Senator Jeff Bain, a Republican representing a district in north-central Pennsylvania. Lingering in the district after attending a contentious constituent meeting, Joe meets Nicole Marshall, whose family owns a lodge and 20 acres of farmland near Loyalsock State Forest.

As fracking grows nearby, some elated residents begin cashing hefty royalty checks for leasing their land to drilling companies, while others suffer the environmental consequences. At the same time, Nicole and her parents discover that the previous owner of their property had retained the mining rights and leased them to a driller in Oklahoma. The planned operation will destroy half of the farmland lovingly managed by Nicole’s father, Gabe. It will also inflict incalculable economic damage to their lodge business as their guests seek quieter and cleaner places.

These events propel Nicole into environmental activism. She becomes involved with a group called 2 Degrees which engages in acts of civil disobedience – its name is an allusion to the rise in temperature beyond which “the descent into a hellish environment would be rapid and, at some point , unstoppable”.

Joe’s relationship with her becomes romantic and further complicated when he is asked to serve as the senator’s spokesman in an effort to land a multi-billion dollar refinery to convert natural gas to liquid in the district. Along the way, he makes disturbing discoveries about the integrity of state regulators.

In all of this, Burton deftly blends fact and fiction, smoothly transitioning from the outer to the inner lives of his characters. Her novel is as much a human story as it is an attempt to illuminate a divisive environmental and economic issue.

He is also interested in the moral dimensions of his characters’ actions. Joe and Nicole both take, what he called in a 2020 interview, “very audacious risks” at the end of the book, their actions “linked to a heightened appreciation of their own humanity and the world in which they live. “.

a conduit

Burton began work on “Bountiful Calling” in 2014 and finished it three years later. He secured a publisher following a pitch at a writers’ fair in Annapolis, Maryland, and he hopes Bancroft Press contacts in Los Angeles will boost the chances of a film version of the book.

Hailing from Queens, NY, the setting of his first novel, ‘The Old Songs’, Burton said he had always thought of himself as a writer, but recognized in his twenties that he would struggle to live from it. He therefore spent his active life in the field of information technology, before retiring several years ago.

Since then he has been writing full time, devoting at least two hours a day to the pursuit. Unlike writers who meticulously outline their plots, Burton describes himself as someone who “simply writes until I run out of gas”.

“All of a sudden it starts to be consistent and if you’re really lucky it starts to impose its demands on you, and you just become a conduit for the action that needs to happen,” he said. .

“Bountiful Calling” was released in March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was closing bookstores and canceling author events. Burton regrets having missed the opportunities he would have had to promote his novel in normal times. With the easing of restrictions, he hopes he will have more opportunities to engage directly with readers.

He recently completed a third novel, “Man Made,” set in a dystopian future and inspired by an interview with Elon Musk about his Neurolink Corporation, a company developing implantable brain-machine interfaces. It’s technology that Burton views with suspicion, especially when considering it against “the overreach of social media and the ease with which autocratic leaders can rise to power.”

But for now, with the multicolored portrait of a complex “Bountiful Calling” problem, Burton wants to help at least some readers break out of their information silos to consider opposing perspectives. This change, he believes, is desperately needed today.

“If I contribute to this in a small way, I will feel like I have achieved one of my main goals,” he said.

“Bountiful Calling” by Fred Burton, Bancroft Press, 248 pages, $26.95. For more information, visit the author’s website at www.fredfburton.com.

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Jessica C. Bell