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Bill McKibben finds political independence alive and well in Vermont


Radio Free Vermont

By Bill McKibben

Blue Rider Press

224 pages, $22

Everyone loves Vermont.

Really, what’s not to like?: The gorgeous Green Mountains that give the state its name. The tiny state’s reputation as a progressive and environmental giant. Its small, clean cities; rolling countryside; and front-row view of  an almost-Great Lake. Ben & Jerry’s. A rich colonial history dating back to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. A fierce independent political spirit embodied by Bernie Sanders. (Heck, Vermont even produced this reviewer’s fabulous daughter-in-law.)

Vermont clearly is the star of this novel.

The plot is simple. A motley crew of four low-key radicals — led by a 72-year-old radio host with a passion for the outdoors and all things Vermont — wants the state to become independent, as in seceding from the United States.

That’s it in a green nutshell.

This book is hilarious, almost a comic-book tale pitting good versus evil, small versus large and independence versus establishment. The good guys here make fools of Vermont’s political leaders, outwitting them at every step.

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance

In his debut novel, environmental author Bill McKibben has penned an entertaining political satire, a delightful romp through Vermont’s hills and valleys. How many books or movies include a big chase scene on skis?

The ringleader of this motley “terrorist” crew is Vern Barclay, armed only with his deep radio baritone voice. Vern bemoans the climate change that has replaced his beloved cross-country-skiing snow with mud. He also rails against dim-witted politicians, federal government subsidies that benefit large farms at the expense of small ones, big-box stores, school consolidation, local TV news and, of course, the excesses of the far-away federal government.

Among other things.

His merry band of co-conspirators includes Perry, a dreadlocked young computer whiz with an encyclopedic knowledge of the R&B charts; Sylvia, a transplanted New Yorker who teaches new Vermonters all about helping their neighbors and driving in mud; and Trance, a former Olympic gold medalist in a sport foreign to most Americans, biathlon.

Holed up in their remote hiding place, these four broadcast their Radio Free Vermont message — “underground, underpowered and underfoot” — to anyone who can pick up their signal.

They’ve succeeded in patching into the 19 in-state Starbucks stores, with their targeted message that Vermont still has locally owned coffee shops: “Coffee shops where the money in the till doesn’t disappear back to Seattle, where the cream in the MochaSexy CappaMolto comes from the cow down the road, and where the music on the stereo might actually come from your neighbors ... Remember, small is kind of nice.”

You get the idea.

This renegade outfit also pulls off a few great stunts, including the hijacking of a Coors truck that finds its tires deflated and its 4,800 beer bottles emptied, while its driver is treated to a picnic lunch of Vermont-made delicacies. There’s also a sewer-system “accident” at a local Walmart and the dumping of a standardized seventh-grade history test for a Vermont history lesson, eventually leaving Vern charged with “unlawful school dismissal.”

Meanwhile, the stumbling, bumbling Vermont governor and state police chief overreact at every turn to these non-violent pranksters, citing “new evidence” linking the fugitive freedom fighters to Internet sites supporting terrorism.

The plot, a bit flat late in the first half of the book, picks up speed toward the end, as the radicals approach their favorite day of the year, the state’s Town Meeting Day. Will this crew succeed in pulling Vermont from the union? And if so, this reader wonders, could Vermont field a strong Winter Olympics team, with its sights set on biathlon gold?

All this nonsense creates a quick read, a delightful romp of a morality play that allows McKibben, a noted environmental activist, to make his points, including shots at our current White House occupant.

In his Author’s Note at the end, McKibben points out that the moral to this fable isn’t really about secession.

“Instead, it’s that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster, and if we can do so without losing the civility that makes life enjoyable, then so much the better.” Citing real-life meaningful protests in America the past year, McKibben adds, “This nationwide unity of dissent is just what the situation demands.”

You don’t have to hail from Vermont to agree with that.

Gene Warner is a retired veteran reporter for the Buffalo News.

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