by Fran Withrow
Occasionally I have had the pleasure of reading one of Leonard Pitts, Jr.’s newspaper columns, always finding his writing thought-provoking and compelling. So when I discovered he was a novelist as well, I had to read his latest offering.
“The Last Thing You Surrender” is a spellbinding, gritty book, and you will find yourself captivated and engrossed from the first to the last page.
Pitts’ novel is set in the World War II era and centers around three very different characters whose stories intertwine in ways they never expected. The intersection of their lives and that of other equally well-drawn characters will alter all of them forever.
George is a 19-year old white Marine whose life is saved by an African American, Gordy, during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the process of saving George’s life, Gordy loses his own. Riddled with guilt, George returns home and meets with Gordy’s widow, Thelma, who lives with her grandfather and older brother Luther. Luther hates white people: when he was nine years old and Thelma three, they watched as their parents were lynched in the front yard of their home. Unexpectedly, Thelma and George forge a connection based on their shared heartache, despite Luther’s objections.
George returns to service and ends up a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, where conditions are abominable. Back home, Thelma finds a job in a shipyard, stands up for an abused white woman, and pays a heavy price for doing so. Luther joins the army and becomes a member of the 761st Tank Battalion only so that George’s father will attempt to prosecute the men who murdered Luther’s parents. Each person eventually realizes that hate—and love—can transcend the color of one’s skin.
Pitts does a masterful job of meshing the stories of these characters, unflinchingly describing the racism faced by people like Luther and Thelma, while also relating how people like Thelma’s white friend Flora Lee look past color to see the person inside. Pitts is dead-on in his ability to portray the thoughts and feelings of both his black and white protagonists, pulling the reader into each one’s thinking with finesse. And while some issues are resolved by the end of the book, challenges remain. Where humanity is concerned, there is always more work to be done.
While this well-researched book addresses the horrors of war, racism, hatred, revenge, and the ultimate in human cruelty, it is also the story of how a person can rise above seemingly impossible odds to stand up for what is right. It is about the power of courage and love to initiate change. It addresses what connects us: our common desire for peace, dignity, fairness and equality. It ponders how one should respond when those things seem out of reach. What is the last thing you surrender when hope seems gone, when injustice appears everywhere, when the world has turned upside down? Pitts’ book explores these questions with a deft hand.
“The Last Thing You Surrender”
By Leonard Pitts, Jr.