Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and bestselling novelist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s new historical page-turner is a great American tale of race and war, following three characters from the Jim Crow South as they face the enormous changes World War II triggers in the United States.
An affluent white marine survives Pearl Harbor at the cost of a black messman’s life only to be sent, wracked with guilt, to the Pacific and taken prisoner by the Japanese. A young black woman, widowed by the same events at Pearl, finds unexpected opportunity and a dangerous friendship in a segregated Alabama shipyard feeding the war. A black man, who as a child saw his parents brutally lynched, is conscripted to fight Nazis for a country he despises and discovers a new kind of patriotism in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion.
Set against a backdrop of violent racial conflict on both the front lines and the home front, The Last Thing You Surrender explores the powerful moral struggles of individuals from a divided nation. What does it take to change someone’s mind about race? What does it take for a country and a people to move forward, transformed?
Leonard Pitts Jr. was born and raised in Southern California. He is a columnist for the Miami Herald and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1992. In 1997, Pitts took first place for commentary in division four (newspapers with a circulation of more than 300,000) in the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors' Ninth Annual Writing Awards competition. His columns on the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman have garnered much attention from his peers and readers alike.
Pitts's column, "We'll Go Forward From This Moment," an angry and defiant open letter to the terrorists, generated upwards of 30,000 emails and has since been set to music, reprinted in poster form, read on television by Regis Philbin, and quoted by Congressman Richard Gephardt as part of the Democratic Party's weekly radio address. He is a three-time recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Award of Excellence, a five-time recipient of the Atlantic City Press Club’s National Headliners Award and a seven-time recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Green Eyeshade Award.
In a career spanning 35 years, Leonard Pitts, Jr. has been a columnist, a college professor, a radio producer, and a lecturer, but if you ask him to define himself, he will invariably choose one word: writer.
He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and children.
"Do not tolerate disrespect, not even from yourself." (Unknown)
The Last Thing You Surrender is a bountiful harvest of life at its core. Amongst the wheat being separated from the chaff, the edible grains eventually fall to the threshing floor. Every breath taken is part of that process. Every step taken must be in the direction in which goodness rises to the surface, nothing less.
Leonard Pitts Jr. presents a sweeping saga of events during the Jim Crow era in the South. He sets his story down among the upscale residential avenues of Mobile as well as the dusty back roads on the outskirts of the city. World War II leans hard with heavy demand for warfare and the intense preparation of men and women who wear the uniform. Shipping out is a given. When is in the hands of the powers that be.
Pitts injects a bolt of lightning from the very first pages. We meet Marine Private George Simon who is thrown from his top bunk as his ship suffers life threatening damage at Pearl Harbor. George has been injured and can barely lift himself from the floor. It's evident that the ship is taking on water at a rapid rate. Gordy, an African American working in the mess hall, hears his cries and assures George that they will find a way out. But it is Gordy who will never reach the surface on that day.
Driven by guilt, George visits Gordy's widow, Thelma, after being released from the hospital. His intention is to tell her what actually transpired during those hours aboard ship. Both individuals are filled with the awkwardness of the moment enmeshed in the unspoken rituals of the deep South. Pitts sets this scenario up as the staircase leading to the vastness of a time embroiled by hatred, bigotry, oppression, and inhumanity.
With the doorway cracked open, we, as readers, will follow the pathways unfolding in the lives of George, Thelma, Luther who is Thelma's brother, and John Simon who is George's attorney father. There will be a backdrop of war, friendship, family issues, societal norms, and the poisonous hate that spews from the soulless. But there will also be the unfurling of hope, humanity, and decency within the stellar writing of Leonard Pitts. He sees to it that life is laid bare with all of its rawness and realism. And that is the impetus for turning page after page......to see it through......to find the worthy grains that should be within all of us. From the first days of Creation to the last.
I received a copy of The Last Thing You Surrender through Goodreads Giveaways. My thanks to Agate Publishing and to the highly talented Leonard Pitts Jr. for the opportunity.
There are tons of novels about World War Two, and the vast majority of them are about what it did to white folks. How African-Americans experienced the Second World War, at home and on the front lines, is a neglected story. Leonard Pitts has made a good start on remedying that with this big-canvas epic revolving around two families, one black and one white, in Mobile, Alabama and the Pacific and European theaters. It is not a pretty story. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Deep South was rigidly segregated, black Americans constrained by a Jim Crow system enforced by periodic violence. We know the history, but it's easy to overlook or forget the every-day cruelty of the system. Pitts brings it vividly to life. George Simon is the son of a prosperous Mobile lawyer, an earnest, upstanding young man with all the virtues and prejudices of his class. He joins the Marines as war approaches. Thelma Gordy is a poor black woman working as a nanny in a white family. Chance brings them together when Thelma's husband, a mess steward on a battleship docked at Pearl, saves George's life at the cost of his own when the ship goes belly-up. When George gets out of the hospital, the War Department gets wind of the story and thinks it would be a great idea to get George together with his rescuer's widow for a propaganda tour to encourage black people to join the segregated military and fight for the country that tolerates their subjugation. Needless to say, neither George nor Thelma is keen on being exploited. Thelma's brother Luther, traumatized and permanently embittered by witnessing their parents' lynching as a child (a hideous crime vividly depicted), is even less enthusiastic. This trio is the focus of the book. George ships out to the Pacific, Luther is off to Europe with the legendary 761st tank battalion, and Thelma goes to work in a Mobile shipyard, the war offering her and many other blacks and women their first chance at a decent job, in the face of bitter opposition from their white co-workers. Meanwhile, George's father, in the course of a grudging attempt (at George's request) to get the authorities to prosecute the instigators of the long-ago lynching, finds his consciousness slowly being raised. Things don't go well for anybody; Pitts does not spare us the details of the war or the violence Thelma faces on the home front. It is, nonetheless, a hopeful story. Pitts could have merely written a screed about prejudice and the cruelties of Jim Crow; instead, he tries to get inside the heads of his white and black characters alike. While making us confront the ghastliness of the war and the lives of poor black people, he also shows a country coming out of the war ready at last to confront its racial divide; without too much sentimentality he shows us how individual redemption and reconciliation are possible. I would not call him a great prose stylist, but he is a fine narrator, and this is a terrific book.
Remarkable work of historical fiction that challenges our race notions
I almost NEVER write a review. But because I’ve read other works by this thoughtful author, I waited patiently for this one to be released, and read it with enthusiasm. It might be his best yet. Let me begin by saying I’m a “softy,” and often don’t like when books or movies get too gritty. Yet, I found that he painted pictures that I thought were necessary for us to see how deeply ugly and evil we can be to each out as “human beings.” I would chase my family members, telling them about this book, the characters, reading scenes from the book. I loved the “thickness” of the characters, none of whom were paper-thin. There was one point in the book where I thought I might need to abandon it; I was so fearful that Thelma would make a decision against hope. Yet the author BRILLIANTLY kept me reading, and I was not disappointed. The book was realistic, yet hopeful, and I loved the modern-day message about race that was woven throughout the text. I could go on and on.....my only challenge was the use of the word “n——“ was used so pervasively that I couldn’t listen to the book anymore. I just committed to reading it to completion. My only request is that whoever directed/produced the movie “Mudbound” needs to make this book their next project. This would make an AMAZING MOVIE!” Just prepare yourself...it would be Rated R. This is not one for the kiddies, but it’s definitely a book worth reading. You will fall in love with some of these characters, as imperfect as they might be. I could go on....Well done, Leonard Pitts, Jr.!
Leonard Pitts, Jr. has written an incredible novel centered around race relations in the midst of WWII. A powerful drama with lots of gripping and very intense scenes. So if you’re at all squeamish about extreme racial violence and gruesome war scenes you might want to prepare yourself beforehand. An absolute tour-de-force by Pitts and now my favorite of his works.
This hidden gem is one hell of a story to reckon with. Historical fiction at its finest. My second 5 🌟 of 2020 & just made my top 10 list of all time favorites. Read the synopsis and just dive straight in. I promise you won’t be able to put it down. I can’t wait to read more by this author.
This.book.is.so.good! ‘The Last Thing You Surrender’ is an exceptional work of historical fiction, that catapults the reader into 1940’s America, during a time when the country was raging in war and swimming in racism. Pulitzer Prize winning author Leonard Pitts, Jr. does an astounding job at creating a story that encompasses race, redemption, and humanity. Written beautifully with masterful imagery, readers will find that this story reverberates long after the conclusion. Words can’t describe how much I enjoyed every page of this book. I highly recommend.
This book...I had to put it down at a very traumatic part for a main character and for me that's the mark of a writer making me intensely connected to what I am reading. Don't be intimidated by the length of this book, Pitts' writing makes this a story that seems to fly by while reading. I have Grant Park by Pitts sitting on my shelf and I will be picking it up sooner rather than later.
I've read plenty of WWII novels, but I've never read anything quite like this. The atrocities, the violence, the brutal chance of who lives and who dies, are all ideas that have been covered, but Pitts brilliantly portrays them side by side the atrocities that were simultaneously occurring in Jim Crow Alabama in the most heart-wrenching ways.
From the opening pages which graphically describe marines trapped aboard a ship in Pearl Harbor, readers should be aware that this author will not shy away from details ... and those are the easy chapters. These 500 pages describe almost unbearable horrors including lynching, POW camps, rape, riots and warfare. It isn't easy.
But Pitts' characters are so beautifully drawn with such full and complex inner lives that I could hardly turn away even through the violence. That's a master stroke for an author.
The Last Thing You Surrender is a monster! It hurts to read it. It often made me feel like a yo-yo. The violent parts bruise like pieces of Cormac McCarthy and the Norman Mailer of the Naked and the Dead but more lyrical and terse. There has been no finer exposition of the impact of an "us/them" approach to self and other and the overall quality of life in this republic than Pitts Jr.'s work over the past decade and a half. Freeman may have been the most important work published in the first decade of the 21st century. "Surrender" is a book for the ages.
Five star historical-fiction of WWII that hones in on race relations. It begins with Pearl Harbor. Much of the action takes place in Mobile, Alabama. The scope is wide enough to include fighting in the Pacific and Europe.
George Simon is the son of a rich white lawyer. Instead of having his father pull strings to get him out of military service (as his father wants), George decides to voluntarily enlist...and happens to be at Pearl Harbor when it's attacked. Against all odds, he lives---but only because Gordy, one of the black cooks, saves his life...and gruesomely loses his own in the process.
This is how George meets Thelma, Gordy's wife, and Luther, Thelma's brother. These three characters become the main focus of the book, and the story follows them as they each try to survive the war. George and Luther are shipped off to fight in Europe (George is eventually captured by the Japanese), and Thelma goes to work at a shipyard, despite vehement disapproval from the town's white community.
This is a beautifully written story. The characters are well-developed and complex, believably evolving and maturing over time. I found myself lost in the book almost immediately, so invested in each of the characters's journeys that I felt legitimately overwhelmed at times. So many truly awful things happen to just about everyone in this book. People die left and right, which I suppose is expected in a book about World War II. But it's especially difficult to see how the war was experienced by black Americans. What a complicated and brutal time for people of color. While white America was fighting one war, black America was fighting two. Thelma's story just about broke my heart, honestly.
So this is a tough book to read. It's raw and gritty and there's pretty much no turning away. But it is a solid, outstanding story. Brace yourself.
Seriously one of the best books I have ever read - and it was a random grab at the library. Intersects three lives in so many ways, but none of them are confusing. It transitioned beautifully from/to each story. I could have read 500 more pages!
I read this novel because it was the group choice for #ReadSoulLit2020. I don't usually read war novels or histories. This one grabbed me and would not let go until the very last page. It was non-stop, at what seemed like breakneck, dizzying speed, from start to finish. Pitts takes the reader through every possible manifestation of humanity's inhumanity, which I won't catalogue here. Every once in a while, though, the author offers a respite by way of lyrical language. There were many but I'll cite just one: "Now spring had come, and war was simply an intruder, the verdant meadows strewn with corpses, flowers crushed beneath wrecked war machines, clear blue skies befouled by towers of black smoke. Death crashing a festival of life."
Okay this is second time writing this review. I wrote it the first time and it all deleted.
This book was a book that was apart of me and my granny’s book club. This book has a few trigger warning that I will include at the bottom of this review.
This book has a few POVs. While reading I did not find the jumping of POV hard to understand or difficult to follow. The POVs that are worth mentioning are Thelma (young Black woman), Luther (young Black man), and George (young white man). You follow the story of how their lives become intertwined.
Luther and Thelma are siblings. However, Luther is angry, rightfully so and Thelma is more forgiving. Thelma’s forgiving nature could be due to her role as a Black woman in her community. However, Luther is about that life and do not care for White folks at all.
When Thelma and Luther were children. Their father was lynched by a white man who was upset with their father for not selling him the biggest pig in the town. Their father was also wealthy and had a car. The white men in the town could not phantom a N-word living well. So they killed his father and invited the town to see. We know things like this is true and has been historically documented. Specifically with the lynches that happened via the KKK.
Thelma was such a kind soul that she befriend a white woman that she should have not due to the white woman’s partner violence. Thelma agreed to let the white woman live in her home to help protect her. The woman’s partner Earl, did not like this. So he retaliated against Thelma for her “taking his wife.” When it was Earl’s behavior as to why his wife left him.
George was a white man who would visit Thelma. It appeared that he was smitten with her but didn’t know what to do. He was also a very religious man. He and Luther joined the military, although Luther was forced to. Reading about their different experiences in the military bought up a few hard emotions in me. I remember hearing stories about it via my step father and grandfather.
This is a story about how the lives of Black folks at this time were treated but also White folks responses to those treatments. This is must for AMERICANS to read.
TW: Rape, violence, Inner partner violence, abuse, sexual abuse, discrimination, racism, sexism, and many more.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
I think about the baby, Adam, as I type this. He'd be in his 70s now, having seen so much in his life, the things that changed, the things that haven't. DH Lawrence once wrote in a review of Hermann Melville's Moby Dick that the original sin of America was slavery, and like the original sin of mankind, we spend our lives trying to atone for it. Leonard Pitts Jr. has tried with this novel to explain the cost of not reconciling, the costs of hatred that continue to divide the world today.
The baby born as a result of the worst hatred would have lived to see this country rip itself to pieces to right the wrongs that created him, would have lived to see the Civil Rights movement, lived to see Dr. King's dream speech, lived through the Million Man March, lived through eight years of a man born of love between Black and white become president. He might have lived through the last few years as hatred has begun to pull us backward, he might be here now, trying to explain to his children's children what he saw that night in the Bienville Square, how the possibilities were laid out in front of George and Thelma like so many threads of time, how they might have discovered that pulling one or another or still one other could change the world.
Pitts' book made me weep for my child, mixed race but born of love, and how I have no more answers for him than George did for Adam on Christmas Eve in 1945.
Wow. One of the best novels for me in a long, long time. Mr. Pitts is an incredibly gifted storyteller and his prose was effortless to immerse myself into. While many parts of this story were difficult to stick with, they were necessary in understanding just what hell the main characters experienced in their intersecting lives, as victims of war violence as well as racial hate. Will definitely read more from this author.
Wow. I had never heard of this author before I joined the ReadSoulLit reading group. As many other people have stated, this book is a masterpiece. I was immediately hooked to Pitts' writing style. It was a very enjoyable read with many lovable characters. This book goes on my fav list for sure.
Without a doubt, this book is brilliant. BRILLIANT! Leonard Pitts Jr. sets this book in the 1940s kicking off with George, a white Marine who is saved at Pearl Harbour by a black man, Eric Gordy. This event is the catalyst for all things thereafter.
The novel follows several POVs: George, Eric’s wife Thelma, Thelma’s brother Luther, and George’s father John. We follow the characters from Mobile Alabama to the Pacific, to Europe.
We experience WWII through the eyes of black people living under Jim Crow. Now, as a white woman and a Canadian my understanding of Jim Crow laws are fairly superficial. I had a general idea but I have never truly understood the gravity of the situation until I read this book.
The writing is excellent, the characters and secondary characters (Ollie, Gramps, Jazzman, Books!) are all brilliant, and all I wanted to do was continue to follow this characters now that the war was over.
I picked up this book for the #readsoullit readalong hosted by @browngirlreading. Thank you Didi!! If she had not chosen this book, I’m not sure I would have ever discovered it. That is so upsetting to me. A book this incredible is barely present on bookstagram and goodreads. What else are we missing out on?! It makes me want to do more research and look beyond the most popular books that we see.
I'm speechless. The characters, flawed and human and beautiful, are intertwined in four very different stories that span the globe. The story is desperate and gritty (oh-so gritty!) and hopeful and redemptive. I think I just read my favorite book of the year. I wish I could give this 10 stars.
What a beautiful read!! The book talks about a bunch a characters, white and black Americans amidst WW2. It's a character driven novel with a beautiful plot that sheds light on the racism during the era and the horrendous things that happen during the war.
Sigh.... This is a beautifully written book about a brutal subject matter. It'll grip you from the beginning and break your heart, over and over, but your desire to learn the fate of these amazing characters will be so strong, you won't be able to put it down. Well done, Mr. Pitts!
Thelma Gordy and her brother Luther Hayes vehemently reject the notion. The siblings have a good reason for their anger—their parents were lynched when they were children, but the man who led the all-white mob was never prosecuted. Despite her initial distaste, Thelma and George strike up an unlikely correspondence. Luther joins the Army rather than go to jail.
Mankind is full of contradictions. We can love and honor friends and kin, but simultaneously dehumanize—even slaughter—‘others.’ The best novelists tease those paradoxes from carefully drawn characters with stirring dialogue and ripping good plots relevant to today. With a Pulitzer Prize in Commentary, Leonard Pitts, Jr. is clearly a great writer, and The Last Thing You Surrender is a superb historical novel.
Mr. Pitts presents lucky readers with a sweeping view of World War II’s melting pot, when people who had lived in bubbles all their lives were confronted with new realities. With so many young white men gone to war, skilled manufacturing jobs were available to blacks and women, though not without a struggle in many places. Some black soldiers fought along whites, and soldiers from the country and big cities got to know each other. Though much of The Last Thing You Surrender is grim, this is a story of redemption and acceptance. Thoroughly recommended.
This is an amazingly beautiful book. It describes horrifying events without drama, yet puts you in the shoes of the people experiencing them. I am reminded of "From Here to Eternity" and "King Rat" in the storytelling style and the introduction of events into our lives that we can barely imagine. It encompasses so much racism, from that going on in the US at the time, to all over the globe between "races". Why can't we just be good people? i think this is definitely a story for our times, because people forget how far we have come. Yes, appalling racial things are still happening, but many of us are reacting appropriately to them. We are not turning our backs or blind eyes, we simply have to keep moving forward. I appreciate being told the story of African American women in the ship building industry, I was unaware of that bigotry. The moment when Luther encounters a white concentration camp survivor and has brought him to him that anyone can be discriminated against, and tortured and killed for their race, is so powerful.