Sam Reaves's Reviews > The Last Thing You Surrender

The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts Jr.
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it was amazing

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.
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March, 2019 – Finished Reading
March 14, 2019 – Shelved

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message 1: by Yigal (new)

Yigal Zur nice review


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