July's People Summary
by Nadine Gordimer

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Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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 fills a balloon’s shape.” Time, as the family once knew it, begins to lose meaning. Desperate for outside news, the adults practically worship their radio, fearful that its batteries might give out. Yet the garbled transmissions they receive do not tell them the fate of their society and its chances of survival.

July at first seems a considerate host, taking a certain pride in showing off his white family, almost like a trophy, but it is obvious that the pleasure of the Smaleses’ presence is beginning to wear thin. The Smaleses, increasingly isolated, try harder to adjust to their alien way of life. The children cope better than their parents, disturbingly so as they begin to play like black children, acquiring their language, adapting themselves to their customs. The youngest son, Victor, begins to forget how to read and does not miss his old comicbook heroes.

The Smaleses’ material possessions, those that they managed to bring with them, are also falling away from them, including the small truck, the “bakkie,” in which they made their escape. Bamford Smales had intended it for weekend bird-hunting expeditions. July manages to get his hands on the keys and does not give them back. Unable to drive before, he now learns from Daniel, a younger black who had once driven a truck for a dairy in Bethal. The Smaleses are disturbed, but realizing that they cannot exist without the goodwill of the blacks, they avoid a confrontation by going along.

Maureen attempts to maintain a semblance of independence. She volunteers to participate in gathering food for her own family, but her offer is rejected by July, who says that his women perform this sort of work. Bamford tries to establish status as a provider of meat by shooting some young wild pigs with his twelve-gage shotgun, but the amount provided is hardly sufficient to make much of a difference.

The white couple’s sense of malaise is increased by the discovery that July’s village is under a higher tribal authority, exercised by a district chief. The chief summons the white family before him. The Smaleses are alarmed that he might order them out of the village, but they discover that he is more concerned with protecting his own territoriality against the black rebels. He views the Smaleses as potential allies, asking Bamford to teach him how to use his gun.

Following the return to July’s village, Bamford discovers that the shotgun and all its ammunition have disappeared. His wife suspects that July is the culprit, but she finds out that the real thief...

(The entire section is 2,979 words.)