Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People is a fictitious account of a black revolt in South Africa. In the novel the blacks in the South African police force refuse to arrest their own people, public services break down, and fighting erupts in the major cities, quickly spreading into the rural areas. Bloodshed engulfs the country. The rebels have prepared well. They have heavy caliber weapons and airplanes and help from the neighboring black states of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, and Mozambique, as well as from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Everywhere their forces threaten the security of the white settlers.
Bamford and Maureen Smales, a liberal, white couple, flee with their three children from their home in a comfortable residential district of Johannesburg and find refuge in the mud and thatched hut village that contains the extended family of their black servant, July.
July then becomes their protector. He quarters them in one of the dwellings that had been occupied by his wife. She resents the eviction, thinking that the whites should seek help from other whites, but defers to the authority of her husband. The lives of the white visitors are transformed beyond their imagination. In the bush they have none of the amenities of their former existence: no electricity, no running water, no modern sanitation. Maureen believes that she is in another consciousness; “it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
July’s People is set in a time and place when the African effort to liberate blacks from white rule has successfully taken place. The entire country has become a battleground; the novel focuses on the plight of the Smaleses, an enlightened white middle-class family.
Bamford and Maureen Smales are “rescued” from deterioration by their servant, July, who takes them and their children into his native village. On the way there, July is seen literally caring for them, and it is obvious to the reader that he has not entirely abandoned his socialized role as a servant to white people. The Smaleses are uncomfortable with the shifting situation as they discover their increasing dependence on July. The novel’s epigraph is an emblem of what the reader might expect in the course of events. Gordimer quotes from Quaderni del carcere (1948-1951; partial translation as Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, 1971): “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” Africa is experiencing a change, and both blacks and whites are caught in the “interregnum,” in the midst of change itself.
Gordimer, however, does not simplify the political implications. In other words, she does not advocate a view that white liberals such as the Smaleses must necessarily be excluded from black liberation. Neither does she cast an approving eye on the...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
July, incongruously both servant and host, brings morning tea to Maureen and Bamford Smales where they are sleeping with their three children in a one-room mud hut with only a piece of sack cloth for a door. A small truck, bought for hunting holidays for Bam’s fortieth birthday, brought the Smales family six hundred kilometers across the veld in a journey that took three days and nights. The revolutionary forces trying to wrest power from the whites in South Africa caused the family to flee Johannesburg with their servant July to his rural settlement, which is populated only by his relatives. Maureen and Bam’s feelings about the revolution are mixed. It brings danger to them as privileged whites, but on the other hand it represents a possible end to the racist system they do not endorse.
Noticing one of the huts contains mining artifacts, Maureen thinks about her childhood as the daughter of a shift boss for the mines. A photographer once snapped a picture of Maureen and Lydia, her family’s servant. Years later she saw the photograph in a book. The photograph captured their social relationship, one that Maureen was too young at the time to discern herself: the black servant carrying the white girl’s school bag.
One day, without asking, July rides off in the truck, with his friend Daniel driving. Upset, not knowing where July went or why, Maureen and Bam begin bickering about why they failed to leave South Africa while there was still...
(The entire section is 774 words.)
In July's People Nadine Gordimer depicts the lives of a liberal, white South African family, the Smales, forced to flee to the native village of their black servant, July. Gordimer sets her novel during a fictional civil war in which black South Africans violently overturn the system of apartheid. In order to escape the violence in Johannesburg, the Smales must accept July's charity and live a life that makes them all confront their assumptions about one another.
The novel opens the morning after an exhausting three-day trip through bush country to reach the village. July brings tea for Maureen and Bamford Smales and breakfast for their children, Victor, Gina, and Royce. After experiencing disorientation from the trip, Maureen asks her husband about their vehicle, a small truck called a bakkae. He tells her that July has hidden it.
The Smales find themselves dependent on July, and July's family questions their presence in the village. He explains the situation, telling his mother and wife, Martha, about the violence in the country. They cannot, however, fully believe his account given then- past experience with white dominance.
To do something other than listen constantly for news on his radio, Bam Smales builds a water tank for the village. Maureen tries to read a novel, since July will not let her work, but discovers that no fiction can compete with her current...
(The entire section is 1566 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-2 Summary and Analysis
July's People, Nadine Gordimer's novel about the situation of whites in South Africa during the end of apartheid, opens with a close third-person narration following Maureen Smales' point of view. Maureen wakes when July brings tea to their hut. At first, she confuses him with a servant in a hotel. Soon she remembers she is in a mud hut with a sack as a door. July has brought tea in pink glasses on a tray, with an open can of condensed milk that has been specially opened for the white couple. However, both Bam and Maureen refuse milk, although they accept tea.
July surveys the hut, where the Smaleses' three children sleep on car seats taken from their vehicle. Encouraged that everyone is all right, he leaves. Maureen immediately slips into confused memory, remembering the only other time she has stayed in a round mud hut, when on vacation with her father, who worked in a mine. The huts are called rondavels, and the mud and thatch insulate against the heat for at least part of the day. The floor is dung and mud, crisscrossed with chickens and ants. Maureen and Bam sleep on an iron bed frame with the springs covered with a tarp from the vehicle. Maureen and Bam had fled the city for three days and nights. Maureen and the three children hid on the floor while the car turned and wove at July's orders. It now takes several days of real sleep and peace for Maureen to surface fully into consciousness. She remembers not the...
(The entire section is 2228 words.)
Chapters 3-5 Summary and Analysis
Maureen is introduced to July's wife at the beginning of chapter three. The two women have no common language, but Maureen tries to convey her gratitude for their protection through July. An old woman is present, someone's mother, and this woman demands something of July in their native language. Over the years, Maureen has sent many presents to July's wife. She sent practical things, such as night gowns and handbags. Seeing July's wife now, in her mud hut, with pink glasses displayed as prize possessions, Maureen realizes how distant their lives have been. Her gifts were useless to July's wife.
Maureen recalls July's town woman, Ellen, a cheerful, well educated woman who knew that she had no claim on July's but who slept with him, ironed for him, and basically lived in the Smaleses' yard with him. Maureen could understand that woman, in a way that she could never understand July's wife. Light shines in through the only window in the hut, where July's youngest child rests, sated on milk. Maureen realizes how distant she is from anything familiar, and that she has no idea what the routine of life is like in this new place.
The fourth chapter switches to July's wife's perspective. She complains to him, demanding to know why he has brought such dangerous intruders to the village, people who can't even take care of themselves. When July had arrived with them, she had not protested. She allowed July to take the second...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)
Chapters 6-8 Summary and Analysis
On Saturdays and Sundays, the men drink and sing hymns. Bam joins this crowd, but Maureen cannot, just as she knows of no work to do. Bam pretends to like the rough liquor, and July supplies a mug for Bam, although everyone else drinks out of the jug. July holds court, telling stories. Bam returns slightly drunk and very confused, because he was unable to understand a word of the conversation. Maureen and Bam feel pressure to talk, but have nothing in common to talk about. The children are off watching drummers practice, so Maureen tells him that Royce used a stone instead of toilet paper. Bam asks how long she thought the toilet paper would last.
The used toilet paper pieces blow around the village because the children refuse to bury them. But Maureen is proud she remembered to bring the toilet paper, of the practicality that led her to grab them in their frantic flight from the city. Many of the other items brought seem foolish, such as Victor's racecar track. Only the anti-malaria pills are recognized by both Maureen and Bam as true essentials.
All over the village, Maureen sees objects she recognizes as from her home. Gadgets, scissors, a knife grinder all in use by the villagers, things she'd never missed. July had returned pennies found under the couch, had never touched their liquor, and yet somehow he had acquired all these objects.
The radio stops broadcasting periodically, then resumes with...
(The entire section is 2296 words.)
Chapters 9-12 Summary and Analysis
Maureen reflects on her tendency to believe all people share the same emotions, and how in the village men and women have different roles, different lives, because men go into town to earn money. She contemplates that there is nothing inherent to being human aside from biology, because circumstances and privilege dictate behavior. When she hears July's voice, Maureen remembers that she still has the keys for the bakkie. from when she retrieved the rubber mat. Maureen has never been inside July's hut, although Bam reports that it has articles from town inside. She sends Royce to get July, but Royce tells her July is in his house and she can come by. Royce offers her peanuts he has picked and Maureen tells him she will roast them like they are in the shops. Delighted, Royce celebrates. Maureen sends Royce and the rest of the children crowding behind him to tell July to come to her, but they do not return. July does not come.
When July finally approaches, he is not sullen or angry. Maureen realizes how silly and mean her manipulations have been and loses her anger. She returns the keys. They both know that Bam is off hunting and that that is why the keys are being returned.
July breaks the silence. He asks why, after fifteen years, Maureen no longer trusts her "boy" with possessions. Maureen winces at the word boy and tries to explain that now they are on different terms. That they are only friends now, no masters,...
(The entire section is 1969 words.)
Chapter 13-15 Summary and Analysis
Chapter thirteen initiates Maureen's slow move into the women's society of the village. She follows them as they pick greens from the long plains. At first she picks them and puts them into the closest bag, but eventually she finds a bag of her own. Hot, Maureen rolls up her jeans past her knees, exposing her varicose veins, her hairy, pale legs, and various mottled bruises. Martha sees her legs and laughs and Maureen laughs too, glad that they are on equal footing with all their weaknesses on display. They work side by side for a bit.
At dinner, Victor asks for more greens and Bam reprimands him. Maureen wonders if he knows that she picked the greens herself, but does not ask. For a moment, she wants to embrace the old Bam, the one from the city, but it passes. Bam obsesses over the radio, which is receiving almost no stations, and Maureen wanders outside. It is a hot afternoon, and she scrapes at branches and wanders aimlessly. She comes across July repairing the exhaust pipe on the bakkie. July discusses wire they had had in the city and tells her he put a huge padlock on the house, that the possessions are safe, and for a moment it seems he has blurred the lines, forgotten who owns those possessions. Maureen has to consciously let the moment pass.
July speaks about how they will return, how "everything will come back all right" and Maureen is unable to participate in this sort of talk. She asks if he really...
(The entire section is 2476 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Summary and Analysis
In chapter sixteen, July tries to explain that country people don't want to defend any nation but their own, the village system they know and love. Maureen says that they will not be left alone. July responds that the chief talks too much, that he can't fight anyway, that he must obey those richer and stronger than him whether they are white or blacks with guns. July drops Maureen and Bam off at the hut and the children stay with him to ride to the bakkie's hiding place. Other children leap onto the vehicle as well.
The Smaleses walk into their hut, the place they have to call home, and see the bedsprings, the car seats, the pink glasses, the smell of bodies and spilled food. When she starts the Primus stove, Maureen realizes that smell will always be the smell of this hut, of this home. Bam focuses on the radio again but cannot tune into any stations. He obsesses over the previous Portuguese broadcast he couldn't understand. Maureen thinks about Saturdays at the mall, with ice cream, buying things, looking at photo exhibits of black villages to learn about other worlds. Bam obsesses, saying that they might airlift people. Maureen doesn't remind him that they are South Africans and no other country will airlift them, they are not citizens. She asks him what he will do if the chief comes for lessons. Bam says he will not help the village arm itself against the agents of their violent liberation. That he will not help blacks...
(The entire section is 1859 words.)
Chapters 18-19 Summary and Analysis
Chapter eighteen introduces a diversion, a huge distraction for the whole village. Maureen sees a man walking with a red box on his head. He is a far distance from the village, and she tracks his progress towards them throughout the day. She has to escape Bam's fiddling with the radio and his foreign nature, so she stays outside the hut. She does not want to go to the river, where the children swim despite her warnings of water-borne diseases. She watches the bush and follows the red box's path with her eyes. Memories bombard her, seemingly without her control or any ordering force.
The red box is carried by the gumba gumba man and contains speakers and a record player to blast music. The thump of it fills the village as he sets up. The children run back and forth between Maureen and the village to report to her the awesome happenings. The children cannot explain what gumba gumba means, only that it will be fun. They have no translation for gumba gumba, no words in English for something they have never experienced before.
Maureen and Bam "were brought together to witness the contraption as divorced people might meet on their regular day to keep up a semblance of family life." Bam asks July what the occasion is, but July says it is just a party. No reason. A huge, ill man sits in the middle of the crowd as if reminding them of the origin of the party–death–and dancing commences. Liquor begins to pour. The...
(The entire section is 3037 words.)