In July?s People, Nadine Gordimer gives a very detailed and knowledgeable explanation of the political turmoil within South Africa. By expressing the emotions of a family involved in the deteriorating situation and the misunderstandings between blacks and whites, she adds a very personal and emotional touch, which allows the reader to understand the true horror and terror these people experienced. Gordimer writes of how the Smales family reacts, survives, and adjusts to this life altering experience. She makes obvious throughout the book that prejudice plays a major role in uncovering the reactions of Bamford and Maureen Smales.
The Smales were a suburban, upper middle class, white family living in Southern Africa until political turmoil and war forced them to flee from their home and lives. Rebel black armies in Soweto and other areas of Southern Africa revolted against the government and the minority white race, attacking radio and television stations and burning the homes of whites. The Smales needed to get out quickly. Their servant July, whom they had always treated well and had a very uncommon relationship with, offered to guide the family to his village. The Smales, having no other options, accepted July?s offer and ran in haste and confusion to the dearth village. They knew little of the drastic adjustments they would have to make in order to survive in July?s rustic village. These adjustments would soon threaten their relationships with one another and their family?s structure.
The three Smales children, Victor, Royce and Gina, had not experienced, and therefore had not expected to live a life of luxury amongst people of their "own" kind. This innocence contributes greatly to the rate and comfort in which they adjust to living in July?s village. Bam and Maureen may not have felt prejudice towards the black race, but were certainly prejudice about the lifestyle in which they must now live, a lifestyle completely stripped of any and all luxuries they once enjoyed. All of the family members, facing a new way of life, adjust to their situation in radically different ways. Each one drifts in their own direction in search of comfort and acceptance throughout their experiences living amongst July?s people.
The first adjustment the Smales family had to make was the realization that they no longer had all of the luxuries they were used to. July says, "They looked different there-you should have seen the clothes in their cupboard. And the glasses-for visitors, when they drink wine. Here they haven?t got anything-just like us"(22). The Smales no longer live in their luxurious seven-roomed house equipped with a library, garage, swimming pool, and white china lavatory. Due to their situation, they are now subject to living in a single room hut constructed of mud walls and roofed in thatch. Dirt and cobwebs adorn the interior as well as an iron bed, parts to a broken Primus stove, and seats to their vehicle that now served as a bed for the children. The pink glass cups that July brought home to his village from the Smales? is a constant reminder of the life and the luxuries in which they were forced to leave behind. They must now live on bare necessity, carefully rationing, reusing, and saving any bit of scrap and food they can. "That was how people lived, here, rearranging their meager resources around the bases of nature, letting the walls of mud sink back to mud and then using that mud for new walls, in another clearing, among other convenient rocks"(26).
Bam and Maureen react to their situation in extreme ways, some similar and some not. The most radical adjustment in which the couple has the greatest trouble accepting is their newfound subservience to July. He has become their host, their savior, and their keeper. When July realizes the power he now holds, he takes advantage of the situation. Whether it is done innocently or with deliberate intent, it is hard to decipher. July ends up taking control of the bakkie (the Smales? car) and it?s keys, which greatly upsets the Smales. The keys symbolize power in this novel. This lever of power gives July greater control over the Smales who are reluctant to ask him to give back the keys. Bam doubts his decision of letting July keep the keys when he says, "There was the moment to ask him for the keys. But it was let pass"(57).
July also puts upon the Smales an eternal gratefulness owed to him for his allowance of them into his home and for his years of service. This aggravates Maureen more than Bam as she cannot believe that he could lay such a burden upon her shoulders. She defends herself and her family from the accusation that they acted typically towards July, treating him like a common servant. Bam and Maureen are extremely frustrated over their loss of superiority and control and their true racist views are uncovered and made far more obvious than when they were living in the city. Despite the fact that the Smales are the more intellectual people of the black community in which they now live, they remain subservient and have almost no influence on the village.
The husband, and emotional leader of the Smales family, Bam was disturbed by the change in stature, but he quickly realizes that it?s the only way for his family to survive. Throughout the entire story, Bam is a very loving father and husband. He is confused over his new position with July who becomes a necessity for the Smales rather than a luxury. Even with all of the problems he and his family have to deal with, Bam manages to control himself and his emotions attempting to make the most of the situation. He contributes to the village by always lending a hand in the "man" work that has to be done and even builds a water tank for all to use. He participates in the drinking of beer with the men of the village and "stays as long as is polite"(35). After returning from his night with the men of the village, "Bam came back to the hut with something of the appropriate, slightly foolish expression of good-natured participation on his face"(35). His attempts to become a part of the community are his way of coping with and trying to improve his situation. It makes him feel good about himself and takes his mind off of the unfavorable aspects of his new life.
Bam constantly listens to the radio, frantically searching for stations broadcasting any updates on the current situation of the war. Unlike his wife at some points, he still retains some hope that the situation will take a turn for the better and that they will be rescued. The radio plays a major role throughout the story acting as a link to the outside world from which they fled. Little by little, radio stations are attacked and broadcasts are made vague and less informative if they are made at all. Once again, the necessity of July is reiterated when he brings fresh batteries to the Smales for the radio.
The visit to the chief was a significant event in the story. July lets Bam drive this time, which is an unusual and rather important change. Bam thought that the chief was going to expel him and his family from the black community in which they had found refuge, but decided against telling his wife or family in order to keep them calm. When July introduced Bam to the chief he said, "Chief, this is the master"(111), which the Smales absolutely hated. This was another reference to the sudden shift in power and change in the relationship between the Smales and July that had occurred because of the trip to the Chief. The meeting was in fact over the gun, which was yet another possession of the white family signifying power that was soon to be lost and taken by the blacks. During the meeting the chief displayed a misunderstanding of the situation outside his community and showed interest in the gun because he wanted to know how he could protect his people if anything should go wrong. After the meeting with the chief, Bam is relieved that his family is allowed to remain in the village, but confused about the awkward political structure of the black community. Maureen, who doesn?t play a significant role in the meeting between the men, does act as a mother and a wife for the first time since their arrival to the village.
A few days later, Bam?s gun is stolen from its hiding place in the hut. Bam is completely caught off guard because he felt that no one in the village knew where it was, which reiterates his ignorance towards the fact that in the village there is no privacy. Maureen becomes angered and leaves her husband in the hut to go and inquire about the theft. She finds July near the bakkie and argues with him that Daniel must have taken it. July claims to know nothing about the gun or Daniel?s whereabouts, but finally breaks down and tells Maureen that Daniel left to join the black army a few days earlier. The last of their possessions has been stripped and the Smales wonder if this feeling of worthlessness and inferiority is something that July, his people, and the entire black race have been experiencing all along.
Maureen, unlike her husband Bam, is unable to control her feelings and emotions in reaction to her situation. She experiences problems dealing with the lack of private time she has with Bam as they once had in their master bedroom saying, "Lack of privacy killed desire"(79). She reacts similarly to Bam for the first couple of weeks, trying to adjust to their new and unfamiliar lifestyle. At first, she concentrates on the well-being of her children and tends to their needs. To try and cope with the changes, she attempts to read, to gather food with the other women of the village who end up poking fun at her white legs, and also to communicate with July about the problems between them, which her husband is unable to do. There is some sort of twisted sexual undertone when Maureen speaks with July.
Maureen reveals her loss of civility when she drowns the litter of kittens. Bam is upset and suggests that she should have let a black woman do it, which reminds us of the prejudice feelings they still convey. However, Maureen says that she is, "Obsessed with the reduction of suffering,"(90) and frantically drowns the kittens with the purpose of saving them from the suffering her family has had to experience living in the village.
Maureen doesn?t adapt as well as the other members of her family and starts to lose her mind. The Smales had limits as though they were criminals locked away in prison, being punished. They were bound to the village by the restrictions of the events surrounding them such as the bombings, the riots, and the fires. "Maureen could not go out into the boundlessness. Not so far as to take the dog around the block or to the box to post a letter. She could go to the river but no farther, and not often. When she did go she did so believing it better not to go at all than risk being seen now"(27). The Smales were trapped and Maureen couldn?t take it anymore.
At the end of the story, the thudding of a helicopter is heard overhead and we see Maureen happier and more alive than she?s been since she came to the village. Bam is with the children at the time and he too hears the helicopter, but understands what the consequences of following it are. Maureen, however, unable to mend the hole in her son?s shorts or the holes in her life, she runs frantically out of the hut, past her family she no longer loves or feels obligated to, and towards the sound of the helicopter, towards the hope of renewal. Because of Maureen?s flight from the village and from any responsibilities she once had, Bam must now become the mother figure of the family, nurturing his children and taking on what was once her role.
July?s People is a story of the reactions, adaptations, and survival of Bamford and Maureen Smales to the life they have found in a black village after being thrown from their middle-class white neighborhood. Bam?s adjustment to their new life in the village was much better than Maureen?s because he handled the situation rationally by attempting to become a part of the community without letting his emotions get the best of him. Maureen, on the other hand, could not adjust to the situation and went almost completely insane because she could not accept a life without racial and gender structures. This alteration in her lifestyle was completely unbearable and she couldn?t survive without the power, control, and luxuries she once had. As a result of the radically different reactions and adaptations of Bam and Maureen to the life in July?s village, their relationship with one another was completely disintegrated.