A Review of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein

Farnham’s Freehold was copyrighted in 1964 by Robert A. Heinlein and published that same year by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York. Initially set in the time in which it was written, at the height of the Cold War, in typical Heinlein fashion, this book starts off with a bang as the main character, Hugh Farnham and his family were blasted 2000 years into the future by a Russian atomic bomb. They survived the event because Hugh had the foresight to build a bomb shelter under his home. How the family adapted to this strange new world of the future constitutes the bulk of the novel.

Staying alive was their first priority and Hugh packed the shelter with everything he thought they would need to live after a nuclear war. But once in the event, it turned out that they needed to improvise-and some of their improvisations were quite ingenious. For example, Heinlein described how they constructed an irrigation canal using a homemade transit of the type employed by the ancient Egyptians to ensure the proper slope; and, how they lined it with clay tiles similar to what the Romans used in their aqueducts. Their 250 ton steel re-enforced concrete bomb shelter had been tilted on an angle by the bomb blast. Using tools and techniques first developed by the ancient Egyptians to erect their monuments, the Farnhams were able to re-level the heavy structure without any power equipment.

Compounding the practical problems, Hugh had to deal with conflicts within the family. In addition to his wife, Grace, Hugh had two children: Duke, his grown son and Karen his college age daughter. There were also two others who were not actually blood relatives: Barbara, a friend of Karen who happened to be staying with them at the time of the attack, and Joe, their African American hired man. Early on, Grace and Duke attempted to gang up on Hugh in a struggle for power. However, everyone else had confidence in Hugh’s leadership, sided with him, and Hugh prevailed. But the conflict remained barely beneath the surface for the rest of the story, erupting on several occasions.

After six months of carving out a homestead, planting and irrigating a garden and successfully working out a division of labor; despite their differences, the extended Farnham household seemed destined to prosper. Heinlein had a surprise for them, however. Unfortunately, their homestead was located in the private game preserve of a heretofore unseen landlord. This landlord was a member of The Chosen, the people who had inherited the Earth after the European and Asian races had all but wiped each other out in the nuclear war, and they were descendents of Black Africans. The Chosen now held the remaining light skinned people of North America in slavery. The landlord, whose nickname was Ponse, had the homestead destroyed and the Farnham clan was carried off into bondage. How this was resolved, I’ll allow readers to discover for themselves.

Heinlein uses irony with great skill in this story. The reversal of the relative status of the black and white races is only the most obvious. There are numerous subtle ironies within this over arching one. The Chosen, who in this story were Moslems, proved to be just as ruthless as the white Christian slave owners were in their time and equally hypocritical in their religious justifications. Joe, who in his own time was a second class citizen, suddenly found himself one of The Chosen, while Hugh, his former employer, became a slave. There are many more such ironies for the reader to discover: some are funny and some are not so funny.

As social commentary, this book is a Heinlein tour de force. He addresses racism, a dysfunctional family, sexual liberation, adultery, property rights, religion, intellectual freedom, methods of leadership in a crisis, the Cold War, and human rights in general. And, despite the doomsday backdrop of the story, he does all of this in a way that leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the future of the Farnhams and of the human race.

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