The Last Thing You Surrender

Written by Leonard Pitts Jr.
Review by Jo Ann Butler

Private George Simon of Mobile, Alabama, is introduced to war in 1941 when his ship is attacked at Pearl Harbor. Badly injured and trapped in a flooding compartment as his ship overturns, George is saved by a black messman he knows only as Gordy, who falls to his own death while they make their way to the ship’s upturned hull. The Navy hopes to center a public relations campaign on George and his rescuer’s widow to encourage more blacks to enlist.

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.