What is the climax of the novel July's People?

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Jessica Gardner | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Nadine Gordimer's novel, set during a fictional civil war in which black rebels overthrow the white South African government, does not follow a conventional story arc. Therefore, the point of climax, the turning point of the story, isn't where you might expect to find it. Rather, July's People is constructed with a long exposition and rising action, a very late climax, and no denouement (falling action). This construction leaves the reader feeling dazed afterwards, wondering what really took place in the ambiguous and intense final scene. You'll therefore find the climax of July's People in the book's last pages.

As previously mentioned, the climax is the point of greatest intensity in a story, novel, or play. Think of a well-known childhood story: "Little Red Riding Hood." When is the point of no return in that tale? When Red discovers that her grandmother is actually a big bad wolf hell-bent on devouring her. Think of examples like that when searching for the climax of another work.
 
So, what is the moment of greatest intensity in July's People? The novel is quite tense from start to finish, but the buildup is very slow-burning. When their lives are threatened by political revolution, the Smales family escapes Johannesburg under the protection of their black servant, July. At first, the situation is tolerable; the Smales are grateful to July and his family, and July is proud to show them off in his township. Soon, though, the gap between the Smales' and July's worlds creates unspoken tension, distrust, and resentment, especially on the part of Maureen. As she is forced to come to grips with the reversal of her authority over July, the rising action of the novel is established.
 
This rising action continues for most of the novel as the following plot points take place:
  • Unlike the Smales adults, the children quickly adapt to their surroundings. They make friends with July's children and learn their language. Young Royce even forgets how to read in this new environment.
  • One day while the family is asleep, July takes the Smales' truck without asking permission. When he returns he assumes he has done nothing wrong. Clearly Bam and Maureen are holding on to the vestiges of white authority, while July has moved past it. He never returns the keys to the Smales. 
  • July introduces Bam to his tribe's chief, an intimidating character who tries to rope Bam into fighting the Russians and Cubans for him, whom he refers to as his real enemy over the whites. The chief is clearly corrupt and Bam is obviously uncomfortable in this situation.
  • Bam's gun is stolen while the Smales are gathered with July's family one evening, listening to music. Maureen demands it back, but July says his friend Daniel must have taken it to join the revolutionaries. Her distrust of July grows.
Finally, one afternoon, Maureen hears the sound of a helicopter landing nearby. She runs towards it, ignoring the sounds of her family as she passes them by:
She runs: trusting herself with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime, alert, like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their lone survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility. She can still hear the beat, beyond those trees and those, and she runs towards it. She runs. (p. 160)
This is the point of climax in July's People, as Maureen effectively abandons her family out of her eagerness to escape her new surroundings and her new status. Which side she is running to, we don't know, and so we are left with no denouement, only the shock of this novel's intense climax.
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