July’s People – Reading Women 2019

This post is part of a series on reading women 2019 hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s Narrative Designer, Dan Michael Fielding.

July’s People is a short, poignant little book about the perils of liberal claims to equality in Apartheid South Africa.

The cover of July’s People depicts abstract paint evocative of dried grass and bushes.

What first drew me to Nadine Gordimer’s book was the time it takes place in: apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa is a period I know relatively little about, as it was never part of my education growing up in the United States. After reading this book…I still don’t know that much about it! But I do feel more connected to the human effects of an extreme inequality.

July’s People follows the titular July (a name given to him by his white masters) and the Smales family as they escape a city at war. Blacks are revolting against the apartheid regime and the city is burning, and the Smales fear for their young children.

July leads them to his home village, where he hides them and cares for them while the war wages on back in the city.

The Smales find themselves thrust into a world they are only vaguely aware of. They have always viewed themselves as upstanding liberals–they believe, strongly, that they have treated July as an equal as much as possible. But upon arriving in his village the Smales, and in particular Maureen Smales, wife and mother, realize that the equality they thought they shared was a thin veneer hiding deeper troubles. At the end of the day the Smales, as white people, still benefited from apartheid while July and his family suffered.

There is a scene early in the book that is emblematic of this, I think. Maureen recalls that she and her husband had debated whether to “get out” of South Africa for a few years. Maureen had inherited no small amount of wealth, they sensed that apartheid was degrading, and they didn’t particularly like the system anyway. But in the end they stayed in South Africa to raise their family. In Maureen’s reflection the decision is as much about the cost of potentially moving as it is about simply not wanting to change the life to which they have grown accustomed.

To me this emphasized how people who view themselves as “good” can allow terrible, terrible inequalities to continue simply because they are comfortable where they are. This scene was brief, but telling.

Overall the themes Gordimer details in her book are extremely necessary even today nearly 40 years after the book was first published. She raises important questions about what “good” people are willing to do to help others, and about the terrible positions we find ourselves in when we assume everyone has the same world view as we do.

I did have a few difficulties with Gordimer’s book. There are moments when the prose requires wading through (but there are equally moments when it flows so beautifully I find myself devouring the pages). There is a hazy quality to the narrative which sometimes made it difficult to follow what was happening. While I fully believe this was Gordimer’s intent, it did cause me to loose my immersion a few times.

Overall I’m very pleased to have read Gordimer’s book, and it’s refreshed my interest in learning more about apartheid. July’s People certainly won’t be the last book I read on the issue.

What Nobel Prize winning novel did you read for the challenge?

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