Within a mere few pages of his debut novel, Altar to an Erupting Sun, Chuck Collins of Guilford, Vermont, sets the stage for his heroine, Rae Kelliher, to carry out a well-planned murder/suicide. Kelliher sacrifices herself to a cause, taking out an oil baron for his role in delaying responses to climate change. Complicating the aftermath, two of the CEO’s children are killed in the process.
In Altar, a work of near-future eco-fiction, Collins welcomes us into a world where visionaries and activists wrestle with climate disruption in the recent past to our present and several years beyond. Rae Kelliher is a life-long activist focused most on the environment, though her reach spans other causes. Throughout the novel, we see what makes Kelliher tick. From wrestling with her Ohio past and a myopic brother to her meticulous research into, and near-obsessive behavior around, a cause, we see that she is a force to be remembered. And she is.
Seven years after her dramatic demise, Kelliher’s Vermont farm community — which she and her husband, Reggie, nurtured — gather to honor her, to try to understand her violent exit, to grapple with the work yet to be done. In the end, it’s clear that Rae Kelliher did not die in vain.
A fortunate son pays it forward
From his native Madison, Wisconsin, Collins, 63, first came East in 1977. At 18, he worked in Worcester, Massachusetts, with Mustard Seed Catholic Worker Community for a few years before matriculating at Hampshire College. He came to northern New England first through Greenfield, Massachusetts, and from there to Southeastern Vermont.
“I started building a cabin in Guilford,” he said. “The appeal was the rural area and the ways in which Vermont has proven itself to be a sort of lab for regenerative economy.”
In a life committed to economic justice and equality, and, more recently, to climate health, Collins, founder of United for a Fair Economy, is director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., where he co-edits Inequality.org, which, since 2011, according to the website, has tracked “inequality-related news and views” that address the question: “What can we do to narrow the staggering economic inequality that so afflicts us in almost every aspect of our lives?” In addition, Collins co-founded the website DivestInvest and is a trustee of the Post Carbon Institute, which publishes the website, Resilience. A board member of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, he was instrumental in shaping that organization.
Author of numerous articles and several nonfiction texts — among them, The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions and Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good — Collins has been a presence on CNN and on NPR’s "Fresh Air"; in print he’s been featured in publications from The Hill to The Sun magazine, all a credit not only to his experience but also to his perspective on economic inequality in the U.S. and worldwide.
Collins has been there. Growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Detroit, he says, he became increasingly aware of inequality in his youth. At 26, he came into a sizable inheritance from his great-grandfather, the German-born immigrant entrepreneur Oscar F. Mayer: in turn, he donated it all to social justice causes and foundations — choosing, instead, “to work for a living,” he said. “I needed to make my own way.” Acknowledging his multigenerational advantage, he adds, “That’s the hand I was dealt: I chose not to go there.”
Storytelling as a tool for activism
About his departure from nonfiction, Collins notes that as in his current work, published by Green Writers Press of Brattleboro, Vermont, “fiction can play an important role in imagining how we move forward.” Collins said that he “didn’t set out to write a novel.” But he added that he was inspired by his wife, Mary Wallace Collins, a real estate agent who is also accomplished at storytelling, an art he’s honing. He’d had the characters, plot, setting, and theme in his back pocket for a while, he said, and so he set it to paper.
Collins said that “we’re on a collision course toward a climate catastrophe. We know what’s required, but we’re at an impasse — a powerful industry has been blocking progress for 40 to 50 years,” he said. “How do we make sense of it and what do we do? There’s lots of bleak imagery in art, but in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, we see visions of how we can live with hope.”
Altar “is a formation story,” Collins explained—one about how people, relationships, experiences, and movements shape us. Weaving in the history of protest and its key players in recent decades and recalling events (such as the partial meltdown of a Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and the IranContra political scandal) and dissidents (from Henry David Thoreau to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, and other progressive Catholics), the new book is, he said, “a bildungsroman for adults.” Moreover, he added, “the story is an altar to people who have sacrificed to social movements.”
A leitmotif, the altar reminds the reader at several junctures that there are sacrifices to be made ubiquitously; there are forces of evil working against efforts to ameliorate climate change; there are saints among us to be revered. “To bring their stories to the fore is to honor them,” Collins said.
“How we die says a lot about how we live,” he says. Rae Kelliher’s act is extreme in extreme times—and one that contradicts her life of nonviolent protest. Collins also tells the story through Kelliher’s journal entries, like this one: “My memory is sharp. I can’t seem to erase some images and experiences. My mind travels to Montague Farm, the soup kitchen in Mexico, the blockade of the pipeline. I can see each scene vividly. […] I rediscovered this Utah Phillips quote that has new meaning for me now: ‘The Earth is not dying—it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.’ What action is justified in defense of my body, our one and only Mother Earth?”
“We, the human project, have power still,” Collins says. “If we all knew then what Exxon knew 40 years ago, we’d have responded differently to avert disaster.” As it is, Rae Kelliher notes that “thousands of innocent people are dying or will die because of climate disruption.”
On Earth Day 2022, Wynn Bruce, 50, of Colorado set himself on fire on the steps of the Supreme Court. Some say he struggled with mental health; others say he was deeply disturbed by climate change and this was his protest.
Most can’t conceive of doing what Kelliher did in the pages of Collins’s book or what Bruce did in real life. Collins would then press a reader about what would effectively protest the status quo and compel change. “What would you do?” he would ask. “What bold act will it take?”
For the novel's release, Collins has launched a book tour across New England this month to read from and discuss Altar to an Erupting Sun. Please find book tour dates and a discussion guide at the website here.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Commons, Brattleboro, Vermont on May 10, 2023.