July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The air is misty. Nyiko appears in the doorway of the Smales’ hut to fetch her friend Gina. They smile but don’t talk, since “their friendship is too deep and secret” to be spoiled by sharing it with others. The boys scrape the remaining bits of mealie-meal from the pot and form it into balls, which they stab with hooks. They run to July and ask him for string. He returns with real fishing-line.
As young children, Gina and Nyiko form a close bond that exists outside of the racial, social, and economic power dynamics that govern adult relationships. When the book describes their bond as “too deep and secret” to be spoiled by sharing it with others, it suggests that society spoils pure human contact and compromises our ability to relate to others in an unbiased, genuine way. Once external issues of class, race, and power enter the picture, all hopes of equality go out the door. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Around mid-day, Maureen Smales is by herself in the hut, repairing a pair of her son’s shorts. The shorts are practical and “hard-wearing,” from Woolworths; the Smales had never bought the frivolous, “American-style leisure clothes” of wealthy people. Suddenly, she sees a helicopter descending on the village. All the women in the village shriek in excitement: they’ve never seen a helicopter up close before. Maureen can’t see any markings on the helicopter to tell whether it carries ally or enemy forces.
The “hard-wearing” shorts from Woolworths carry a certain cultural currency. They say that the Smales are a more ethical type of wealthy family, who don’t let wealth corrupt their priorities and entitle them to a life of frivolity. Once more, we see that the Smales’ progressive views are mostly superficial. Lastly, the helicopter can be either good or bad news for the Smales: if it carries government allies, they could be removed from the village and returned to the safety of someplace where their race and money are assets to them, as they once had been in apartheid-era Johannesburg. On the other hand, if the helicopter carries freedom fighters, the Smales (and the villagers who housed them) could be in grave danger.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Maureen sets aside the half-finished shorts and calmly exits the hut, walking gradually faster as she makes her way through the village, past piles of thatch and caged fowl. Suddenly, she’s running toward the river. Maureen hears the voices of a man and children speaking English nearby, but she ignores them. She reaches the riverbank and leaps from boulder to boulder. When there are no more rocks, she removes her shoes and wades into the water and crosses the river. She can hear the helicopter idling somewhere ahead of her. She reaches the other side of the river and puts her shoes back on. Then, she continues running toward the helicopter.
The man and children speaking English to Maureen are Bam and her children. She refers to them impersonally, though, not thinking of their names. This illustrates how distanced she’s become from her family. Being in July’s village has destroyed Maureen’s ability to make sense of herself, her relationships to others, and the role she is meant to play in society. Her decision to abandon them reinforces this attitude. The ending of the book is ambiguous and leaves readers to question Maureen’s motives for running away when she can’t know for certain whether the helicopter will save or doom her. In the moment, this uncertainty is preferable to what she would have to deal with if she stayed behind in the village: a family she can no longer relate to, latent racism she’s too ashamed to confront directly, and being at the mercy of a man she feels is beneath her (and hating that she feels that way, too).
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon