Bill McKibben is well-known for his environmental activism, especially his passionate advocacy on the issue of climate change. With 16 books to his credit (including his 1989 work, The End of Nature, often considered to be the first book on climate change for a general audience), he has never before tried his hand at fiction. McKibben’s good-natured debut novel, Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, is the story of a quartet of Vermonters who resort to unconventional tactics to persuade their fellow citizens to entertain the seemingly preposterous idea of seceding from the United States.
The conspirators’ ringleader is Vern Barclay, a septuagenarian former talk show host. He holes up with Perry Alterson—a 19-year-old with mild Asperger’s syndrome and a passion for Motown music—in the home of Vern’s friend, Sylvia Granger, who runs a “School for New Vermonters” that teaches skills like driving in the mud. They’re joined by Trance Harper, a former Olympic biathlete. With Perry as his engineer, Vern launches a series of podcasts inspired by his concern that “our communities were starting to fail,” and urges the inhabitants of the Green Mountain State to consider following in the footsteps of the movement’s stubbornly independent patron saint: Revolutionary War soldier and politician Ethan Allen.
The actions of Vern and his cohorts, including a few pranks that are more irritating than dangerous, provoke a gross overreaction by the authorities, played out in some scenes of mostly slapstick violence. McKibben wisely leaves unresolved the ultimate question of whether Vermonters will vote at their annual town meetings to support turning their state into a fledgling republic, while effectively portraying even Vern’s mounting ambivalence as his movement rapidly gathers momentum.
Radio Free Vermont is less a brief for secession than it is a gentle argument for the virtues of responsible civic engagement. In a time when many Americans feel alienated from the machinery of government, that’s a message worth taking seriously.