“I wanted to do something,” says the protagonist in Bill McKibben’s Radio Free Vermont. (28) The desire, nay, the need to create change is inarguably the ethos of McKibben’s novel. In this fable of resistance, McKibben balances humor, civility, and social change to demonstrate the power of small acts of activism. McKibben, an environmental activist, has been calling for social, economic, and political change since the late ’80s. Yet he is still fighting to reduce the consequences of CO2 emissions, the politicians heralding coal, and the EPA dismantling protective policies in order to convenience corporations. McKibben is an adroit writer who is able to influence discourses in both nonfiction and fiction formats. Thus, Radio Free Vermont reflects McKibben’s ability to showcase social and political problems while emphasizing tangible solutions we can all undertake to enact social change.
The characters in Radio Free Vermont represent a wide swath of society. The primary group is comprised of Vern Barclay, a septuagenarian and reluctant secession movement leader. He’s invested in maintaining conversation as a facet of everyday life and in so doing, sparks a resistance movement throughout the state of Vermont. He’s supported by Perry, a young computer genius who claims he’s “not really a politics person, and I haven’t followed all the back-and-forth” (22). Despite Perry’s identification as apolitical, he becomes an active participant in the movement. Finally, there’s Trance Harper, an Olympic gold-medalist and Veteran. Harper becomes the embodiment of a timorous yet irrepressible celebrity who’s appropriated by the antagonists to propel their anti-resistance ideologies. There are several other characters that provide unique and heartfelt contributions to the plot, as well. This is part of McKibben’s message. Whether you are a staunch activist, apolitical, or just want to support your local brewery, your activism is worthwhile and valuable. These characters demonstrate the importance of acknowledging an individual’s standpoint as a meaningful contribution.
The novel is funny and McKibben includes humorous quips throughout. The comedy, however, might threaten to undermine the larger message for some readers. Indeed, the concluding exposition becomes farcical. However, throughout the majority of the novel the author succeeds in striking a balance between the serious and satirical.
Radio Free Vermont encourages readers to include civility as part of their activism. For example in the opening scene, readers are introduced to Vern’s type of resistance when he hijacks a Starbuck’s radio station. This is a clear call to reclaim control from our corporate overlords while remembering that “small is kind of nice” (2). Frequently these days, it seems that kindness is considered a weakness and civility is dismissed as ineffective. However, McKibben demonstrates that activism doesn’t always need to be militant. Instead, comity is also a viable political tactic. Some readers might find that as a political satire, Radio Free Vermont is not sawtoothed enough except for the occasional jab at Donald Trump. However, this is McKibben committing to the belief that civility and resistance are analogous.
It’s always necessary to consider your community when organizing. Vern’s reluctance stems from his belief that secession might not positively impact everyone. Without a doubt this is a critique of the widespread homogenization running amok in our society. McKibben makes it clear that unless you include the needs and standpoints of your community, your movement will not succeed. For example, Vern reflects that for many years he wasn’t aware that his fellow “Vermonters weren’t as happy as I was… people thought things were changing for the worse around here” (24). McKibben is also tapping into social history to remind readers of past mistakes. Indeed, consciousness, or lack thereof, is a central critique of the second wave feminist movement. Without a doubt social movements need to be inclusive and represent the voices of all community members.
Radio Free Vermont is not a secession manifesto. McKibben’s novel clearly articulates that separating from political or social turmoil is not the answer. The resistance movement that rises in the novel demonstrates the power of ordinary people creating pathways for systematic change. McKibben firmly believes in the power of an individual’s ability to veer society away from acerbic Trumpian discourses and the influence of giant military-industrial-complexes. It’s up to us to remember the viability of being “underground, underfoot, and underpowered” (2).
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Enjoy Woronzoff’s interview with McKibben here.