The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The English-speaking Smaleses listen to the radio hoping for the best, but at the same time asking themselves whether they would even want to resume their former lives. They have never considered themselves part of the Afrikaner society, have always deplored the apartheid system, and once contemplated emigrating to Canada. They view their relationship with the blacks, especially with July, as almost one of friendship among equals, and they shudder at the thought that it in any way resembles one of master and servant. It would never occur to them that their treatment of the natives might be a form of condescension and that they share part of the blame for the state of affairs between the races.

The Smaleses speak no other language but their own and are equally provincial in other ways. Their good intentions cannot make up for their naivete and their lack of imagination. Despite the weeks of serious rioting in Soweto, Bamford downplays the impending crisis. He withdraws his money from the bank only after he has been alerted by a bank accountant for whom he once designed a house, and even then does so reluctantly in a state of “detached disbelief.” The Smaleses are professional liberals. “They had always from a distance admired Castro, the bourgeois white who succeeded in turning revolutionary.” Undoubtedly, there are other South African whites who share these sentiments, but in this emergency, they do not seem important enough to give protection even to each other.

Maureen struggles to remain true to her ideals. Yet she does not have the personality or the experience to relinquish her parental attitude toward blacks. By indulging July in his appropriation of the truck, she allows...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bamford (Bam) Smales

Bamford (Bam) Smales, a white South African architect, married with three children. A social and political liberal, Bam must confront his own buried fears of a true shift in the balance of black and white power when he finds himself dependent on his black houseboy, July, after the Smaleses take refuge in July’s village. Cut adrift from white society, Bam sees his wife’s respect for him eroding and his children assimilating easily into village life, while he himself flounders like a fish out of water in his new surroundings.

Maureen Hetherington Smales

Maureen Hetherington Smales, Bam’s wife, also a political liberal. It is Maureen who has dealt most closely with July during his years in their employ, yet her stay in the village brings her to an awareness of how little she has truly known July and how paternalistic is the nature of the family’s relationship to him. Worn down by the strain of their situation and growing ever more resentful of Bam’s helplessness, Maureen is forced to reassess the most basic assumptions of her life and is willing, by the book’s conclusion, to abandon her husband and children for a chance to escape from the village.


July, also called Mwawate (mwah-WAH-tay), a black man who is the houseboy for the Smaleses. July has worked for many years in Johannesburg, making yearly visits to his family and his village. When a full-scale revolution breaks out in South Africa, it is July who takes charge of...

(The entire section is 642 words.)