July's People

by Nadine Gordimer

Hardcover, 1981

Call number




The Viking Press (1981), Edition: 1st, 160 pages


For years, it has been what is called a 'deteriorating situation'. Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family - liberal whites - are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his native village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July - the shifts in character and relationships - gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.

User reviews

LibraryThing member juliette07
This book was so idiosyncratic yet so relevant to all of us - what is it that we value in our lives? Just exactly how important is the 'trivia' in our lives? What will you take when the time comes to flee your home? In common with the woman in this novel I too would probably take a book. Poor
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Maureen, she was frightened to make a start on hers as 'she did not want to begin it. What would happen when she had read it? There was no other.' Reading on a few lines we find she has indeed made a start but Gordimer allows her to express the very reason we sometimes read and yet for Maureen it was the grim truth.

'But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being in another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading. for her, was not possible. She was in another time. place and consciousness; it pressed in upon her as someone's breath fills a balloon shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding what she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination. They had nothing.'

So this book, written in 1981 set in South Africa is one in which apartheid and the revoltionary uprising of blacks is the backcloth for an adventure that has the white family and black servant role reversed - but in the hands of Nadine Gordimer it is so much more.
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LibraryThing member jmattas
The setup is intriguing: a former black servant has taken his former white masters in his custody after an uprising. The book deals, as might be expected, with their inverted relations, but surprisingly doesn't mention the outside world at all, and all the "action" takes place in the small native
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The book touches very deep themes of human relations, power over others, and the uncertainty of "an intermediate state". July's motives are never revealed, so you feel a bit uneasy throughout it.

This book was unbelievably difficult to read. I've read philosophy textbooks which open up more easily. Nearly every sentence catches the reader off guard with its structure and is loaded with meanings. Many of the metaphores are a bit hard to digest, and sometimes it doesn't seem worth the effort to figure it out.

Anyway, it made me think, challenged and rewarded me at times, so I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't be handing out Nobel prizes for this kind of literature.
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LibraryThing member cammykitty
During the unrest, better called civil war, breaks out in South Africa during the 1980s, July takes his white "masters" of fifteen years into hiding. He places them in his mother-in-law's hut.

This book works on several levels, and I'm sure a single reading doesn't do it justice. It is written in
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an odd style, with no fixed point-of-view and very heavy with dialog. The dialog is often on the English of a non-native speaker who uses only as much English as is necessary, answered with English deliberately dumbed down. These style elements made the narrative forever shifting, as though the reader wasn't sure what had been said, and certainly wasn't sure what would come next. Often, I'd criticize an author for lack of clarity, but this was clearly deliberate and it had a chilling effect. It echoed the alienation and oddness that the characters were experiencing, and it created a helpless and dehumanizing mood.

The copy I had clearly belonged to someone who was reading it for a college course. Odd passages were underlined, and there were notes like "watch how her relationship with July and Bam changes." Clearly, many people read it for the subtle changes within the relationships. Very few novels depict as intricate and uncomfortable relationships as this.

Possible spoilers ahead, but not big spoilers.

For me, the descriptions snuck up on me and hit me on the head. The whites were living in intolerable conditions, but these conditions were every day for July's village. What the whites owned was constantly being devalued, and the children were fitting in, but also not understanding the village expectations. They'd steal what to them was junk and damage what to them was just leaves, but to the village was building supplies. Bam, the white father, was constantly listening to the radio for news, and the radio fades away. Then Gordimer describes Maureen's naked breasts in the one room house they all share. Her breasts weren't erotic, but bare with the humiliation of the nakedness of a concentration camp. I can't find the exact passage, and my paraphrase doesn't do it justice, but with that simple description Gordimer raises the question, how can two peoples, many well-meaning, have come to the point of attempted genocide.
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LibraryThing member jeniwren
Set in South Africa during a time of conflict where a white family seek refuge with their servant , July in his village after widespread rioting. This was written in 1981 and the story is set in the future where blacks have finally overthrown their white oppressors. Sounds eerily familiar?
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little happens as far as the story goes and the author focuses on the interactions between the characters and the shifting balance of who now has the superior skin colour to pass in the new society.

barbel; whisker like organ near the mouth of a fish.
bilharzia; parasitic worm disease caught from bathing in fresh water.
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LibraryThing member Clara53
This book was almost too painful even to read, so raw and poignant, but I continued with it: there was that pull of a compelling story... The writing style itself is a bit scattered and jumpy, not flowing easily, sometimes making me re-read a sentence to fully comprehend it or to see who is
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actually talking in a dialogue. So I didn't care much for that part. But what impressed me was an intense try for objectivity - a white anti-apartheid writer trying to equally present the emotions of blacks and whites, the mindset of a white couple who genuinely consider themselves very fair towards their longtime black servant, until the roles sort of reverse - and then the conflicting emotions and unexpected thoughts arise in everybody involved. I wish there was a more clear denouement at the end. But the author decided to let us figure it out.
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LibraryThing member michiy
Riveting and tense, an excellent portrayal of race relations between white and black Africans. Very enjoyable, though not in the fun sense, but ultimately I find the author's writing to be too much woman (this is coming from a woman).
LibraryThing member strandbooks
This is the second book I've read by Nadine Gordimer. I liked it better than The Burgher's Daughter, but I felt so cheated at the end. I don't want to give away a spoiler. I also feel like I have an inadequate understanding of South African history, but in this novel it isn't as necessary to know
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historical details as The Burgher's Daughter. I thought the struggle between July and Maureen was very well written. I felt like Bam and the children were 2-dimensional characters but I was puzzled if they were meant to be that way.
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LibraryThing member tzelman
Excellent. Tense, well-drawn drama of insurrectionary turmoil in South Africa. Faithful servant July must now shelter the while family he has long served.
LibraryThing member poplin
July's People is the second book I have read in as many weeks set in apartheid-era South Africa (J.M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K being the other), and it offers an enlightening insight into a period I know factually but not emotionally.

The Smales, a white middle-class family living in a
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big city in South Africa, have a black servant whom they call July (because they cannot pronounce his real name). After the black citizens of South Africa stage an uprising, July takes the Smales family to his village to shelter them.

Through this reversal of situations, Gordimer offers a meditation on the nature of power, and how changes in power can be disorienting, whatever the actor's intentions. Prior to the hostilities, the Smales family consider themselves "liberal," and they treat July to small treats and favors that many of their contemporaries do not afford their black servants. Once the situation is reversed, July's treatment of the Smales echoes their treatment of them, and for the Smales--and in particular, the mother, Maureen--this reversal leaves them with an inability to judge the true nature of things.

Neither July nor the Smales act with any apparent malice, and if they are not without prejudice, they all consciously act to avoid displays of it. Gordimer's ultimate point seems to be that outlook doesn't matter; power affects relationships, regardless of a person's intentions or desires otherwise.

In short, July's People is enlightening on both a historical and a thematic level, and I intend to explore more of Gordimer's work in the near future.
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LibraryThing member KathleenMunden
I didn't really enjoy this book. The premise was intriguing, but the writing style and lack of character development was difficult for me to enjoy. While I realize this was sort of a claustrophibic moment in time for these people, I didn't feel I knew the characters and wasn't engaged by any of
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them, and didn't really care too much what happened to them. The ambiguous ending was unsatisfying, and while the nuances of the evocative language were interesting, the pretentious and confusing dialogue structure was incredibly annoying. Fortunately, it was a short book, and didn't waste too many hours of my life.
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LibraryThing member otterley
A celebrated white liberal during the apartheid years, Gordimer imagines how people like her might deal with a violent black seizure of power. Flight and dependency ensues, and a story laced with irony and ambiguity. The survival of the Smales is due to the decency that leads to their black servant
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risking collaborator status by saving them; but Gordimer shows how the best meaning of liberals are freighted down by the common history of the oppressive society in which they live, and the assumption on which they cannot but build their lives. Hope lies in the children, the three white children effortlessly integrated into the world of the black children of the village, able unknowingly to be part of a new society.
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LibraryThing member rainstaindpages
VERY POORLY WRITTEN, i thought, very scatterbrained and hard to read well. ugh it was awful trying to read this, and i really tried. I had to read it for senior year summer reading. it was an awesome topic, but someone should have taken writing classes!! it would have gotten out to the world if it
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was written better!
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
A story of a liberal white family that flees a war between black and white. They leave with their servant July in their yellow bakkie. A interesting contrast of white and black and the failure to really understand as captured when the wife says "is our liberalism skin deep only?" (Not an exact
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quotation) The story symbols are the bakkie and the shot gun. Is this a book of hope for the future as displayed by the Samles children playing with the black children or is this dystopia look at the future of apartheid. The ending is startling, what does it mean?
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
I picked this one up because my daughter is taking a quarter off to study sharks in South Africa. This book, written in the 1980's weaves a story of what could have happened in South Africa during Apartheid. It follows the story of a liberal white family that flee to the village of their African
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servant after a violent revolution. Such an interesting view of race relations. The dialog was tough to follow. I would love to re-read this book - maybe with Spark Notes in hand. Definitely makes me wonder if our liberal views are more than skin deep.
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LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
When a riot breaks out in a town in apartheid-era South Africa, a white family is given refuge by their black slave in his hometown. This is a simple, quick, character-driven sketch of the circumstances - yet it packs a hell of a punch as we grow to know these characters and understand how
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imperfect everyday people can contribute to the really horrific circumstances around themselves.

The story is told mostly from the point of view of Maureen, the wife and mother of the white family - and it's really impressive how tightly the narrative makes her perspective our perspective, including her casual and ingrained assumptions of simplicity and inferiority of her servant July and his indigenous townspeople. She's not meant to be a villain, nor does the story get told in a way that pats itself on the back for an "unreliable narrator" trope. It's just that Maureen is human, has been blind to her own cultural assumptions up to this point because it was advantageous for her to be so, and she doesn't quite know how to deal with the shock of confronting anything but what she's always known. July's motives in taking in her family are unclear, and as they're mostly cut off from communications, the family faces anxiety about whether the systems in place still even support their societal place at the top. But, pragmatically, that doesn't even matter, does it? The limitations of Maureen's sympathy and understanding, casual rather than overtly cruel, both reflects and contributes to injustice in a greater way than she can understand, and I as a reader was really uncomfortable (to the great credit to the author!) inhabiting her worldview and the systemic injustice encoded within.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Loved the book
LibraryThing member booklover3258
I could tell from the first couple of pages, I would not like the book. I did not understand it at all.
LibraryThing member japaul22
[July's People] takes place in South Africa during the battles to end Apartheid in the 1980s. The white Smales family flees the city with their servant, July, escaping the violence to the relative safely of July's home village. There, the contrast between their former life as privileged whites and
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the life of July's family is explored. For a while, July acts the same role as in the city - the subservient servant making life comfortable for his employers. But as time goes on, the line shifts. His expertise at living in these very different conditions gives him power, as does his standing in his community. He starts using the Smales's car as though it is his own and controlling them in other ways as well. It's subtle, though. No one knows what will happen next. Certainly if they end up back in the city with things as they were, July will want his job to continue as it was and knows his status will revert so he doesn't make a big shift in attitude. At the same time the Smales's life changes and their eyes are opened to how others in their country live, but more they seem to realize the benefits of their way of life and miss some of the simple things they took for granted. Again, though, Gordimer approaches this with a subtle touch - it isn't just that they miss certain comforts, but sometimes more the ideas or meanings behind those comforts. There is also the constant unknown - should they flee South Africa, wait for things to stabilize and return home, or what? Their children, however, assimilate quickly to the way of life in the village. There are constant references to how they begin to behave like black children in how they play, eat, and speak.

This book is beautifully written and tastefully done. Unlike some other African novels that I've read by white authors, there isn't a pervasive racist tone. There is certainly comparison but it didn't feel judgmental to me. This is particularly impressive to me considering that the book was written in 1981 as the battle to end Apartheid was still occurring.

Definitely recommended for those interested in African literature.
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
It's necessary first to understand what this is: a novel published in South Africa in 1981 that imagines a near-future civil war resulting from apartheid. The South African government banned this novel on publication, indicating the degree of fear at that time that some uprising like the one
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described might actually come to pass. As if this novel would give the oppressed segment of the population ideas they'd never contemplated, or the courage to embrace them. Given the happier course that actual history followed, this may appear to date the work a bit, but racism did not evaporate when Nelson Mandela won the election; not in South Africa, not anywhere else.

Maureen and Bam are on different wavelengths in terms of adaptation. Bam views the circumstances as temporary, still clinging to his old perceptions, still viewing possessions as theirs, still jockeying for power and status. Maureen is striving harder to view their status in the new terms, knowing they remain under July's care at his whim. An interesting shift then takes place.

July's people retain their view of white folk as a source of trouble, unpredictable, the retainers of real power. They have not seen the white cities, cannot imagine what the uprising means. July is evolving along with his white guests, demonstrating the respect he's always shown but no longer as a servant, now as someone who can decide what is best for them. He is proprietary of their care; doesn't want them having to do too much outside his perceived role for them, but no longer because he is being paid by them. Now they are his people, too.
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LibraryThing member mtbearded1
43 of 75 for 2015. I love Paul Theroux's travel writing, and in Dark Star Safari he recommends Nadine Gordimer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Deeply concerned about the racial situation in her native South Africa, Gordimer's work mirrors her political passions and July's People is
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no exception. Written ten years before South Africa's (mostly) peaceful transition from Apartheid to Democracy, the novel traces a white family of both Afrikaaner and English ancestry who flee their city home to live in a mud hut with the family of their black houseman, July. The political situation seems based on what happened in neighboring Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, with black guerrilla armies prowling the countryside targeting white businesses, homes and families. July's People shows the vast difference in life experience between the white and black people of South Africa, and neither side truly understanding the other. In fact, the book is an excellent treatise on The Other, as we see the blacks from a white perspective and the white family, now living in a typical back country black family village, alive simply by the goodness of their former servant. This was not an easy nor a quick read, but I recommend it to anyone interested in the politics of race and the importance of seeing the human in someone other than ourselves. As a side note, the book could fulfill several categories of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge in that it was written by an "Author from Africa." It is about someone "from an Indigenous Culture." The author's gender is "different from my own." And it was "recommended to me by someone else" (Paul Theroux).
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LibraryThing member hemingwayok
I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was intense and full of little stories. Ultimately, it is an important commentary about the problems of Africa. Actually, it somments on the human situation in its entirety. What do we hold to be important? Where do our values lie? READ IT!
LibraryThing member Castlelass
Published before the end of apartheid, this book imagines the white Smales family, living in South Africa, taken in by its black servant, July. July rescues the family from the violence in Johannesburg and has taken them to his remote village. They are now living in a one-room mud hut on July’s
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property. Their experiences are narrated from the perspective of Maureen Smales, wife of Bamford and mother of three children.

It is a role reversal that highlights the inequities of apartheid. Maureen, though she considers herself liberal, cannot let go of her privilege, even as her family depends on July for the basic necessities of survival. I found it realistic that the children accept the changes readily, while the adults struggle. The novel explores themes of race, identity, loyalty, and equality.
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