'Radio Free Vermont' touts the power of local government and grassroots efforts
This new novel by author, environmentalist, and Vermonter Bill McKibben is heavy on coincidence and light on believability.
Calexit may be the secessionist movement making headlines today, but three ornery, individualistic, northern New England states are home to their own share of residents who think they would be better off free from the United States federal government. Libertarian New Hampshire is an especially fecund breeding ground for these movements, but it's the left-leaning, hippie Ben & Jerry's state that takes center stage in Radio Free Vermont, a new novel by author, environmentalist, and Vermonter Bill McKibben.
"Radio Free Vermont" tells the story of Vern Barclay, a 72-year-old radio broadcaster and lifelong Vermonter. Barclay has avoided rocking the boat for much of his career, even as he's watched Vermont transform as flatlanders move up from New York and big business spreads its tentacles through the state. But when a broadcast at a new Walmart goes awry, Barclay becomes a fugitive from justice.
He teams up with a former Olympic skier, a woman who runs a school to teach new Vermonters about the state, and a tech-savvy teen to broadcast his radio show from a secret, untraceable location. Now, Barclay has a new message: After the Walmart snafu, he's calling for his fellow Vermonters to consider seceding from the United States and forming their own new country. The government doesn't like this one bit, and they step up their efforts to find Barclay. Shenanigans ensue involving local beer heists, a cross-country ski race through the forest, and a crucial vote at town meeting, which, for the non-New Englanders among you, is a traditional form of direct democratic decision-making practiced in many of the region's towns.
McKibben is the author of one of the first commercial books about climate change, but this is his first fiction book, and it's more political fable than literary novel. The plot is heavy on coincidence and light on believability. But readers of "Radio Free Vermont" didn't come here for the book's literary merits. The novel, which was blurbed by Bernie Sanders himself, is being marketed as a grippingly relevant tale for these dire times.
In some ways, this marketing is a stretch. Yes, McKibben's evocations of the ravages of global warming are relevant and poignant – the book takes place in January, but Vermont is in the throes of another warm, muddy winter. His depiction of overarmed local police forces (they launch rocket-propelled grenades at a log cabin) are also spot-on. But overall, the big bad world that "Radio Free Vermont"'s characters fight against doesn't read alarmingly like ours; if anything, it actually feels dated. The book's main characters are obsessed with fighting big business, with buying local, with preserving their small-town, nature-centric way of life, and with welcoming businesspeople from the big city who just want to get away from it all. But these ideals have been fought for in American fiction and politics for decades. Where are the erosion of reproductive rights, police brutality against people of color, attacks on refugees and immigrants, and rape culture in "Radio Free Vermont"? Overworked businesspeople fleeing the rat race aren't going to be the Americans who need a secessionist movement if push comes to shove. If anything, parts of "Radio Free Vermont" left me wistful and nostalgic. If only these were the main conflicts in today's America.
But even if it's not a shockingly relevant mirror of these modern times, "Radio Free Vermont" is still worth reading, because it espouses a timeless principle that is indeed relevant today: local government and grassroots efforts hold great power to transform the world around us. The characters in the book constantly reinforce that small decisions, such as raising taxes or building a new town pool, are the decisions that shape communities and individuals' quality of life. They reminisce about an actual incident in the 1930s when Vermont town meetings defeated a plan to build a highway along the spine of the state's Green Mountains – a reminder that grassroots legislative activism can actually work. The book upholds think-local ideals: neighbors knowing neighbors, citizens talking with each other, learning about issues, having debates, and being willing to change their minds. At one point, Vern tells a town meeting skeptic that democracy isn't just about voting for president every four years, but rather about "getting together with your community to think about your future."
You can tell from reading this book that McKibben truly loves Vermont. When Vern wanders in the woods near the cabin where he's hiding, he admires a birch tree, a turkey tail fungus, and the winter-bare branches. He revels in the fact that moose have returned to Vermont as the state revitalizes after too much farming a century ago. "Radio Free Vermont" may not live up to certain aspects of its marketing, but it's a stirring reminder of the importance of loving our home, working with the people around us to figure out what we want that home to look like in the future, and then fighting for that vision. Now that's a fable worth remembering.