It’s been almost four months since the publication of Leonard Pitts Jr.’s newest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, which begs the question: are you on your third re-read or your fourth?
Whether you’re looking for new ways to engage with the text or something to share with your book club or library, the following discussion questions will help you think more deeply about the novel and its historical underpinnings.
Thelma and George, despite their many differences, find that they have a natural ease in talking to and confiding in one another. Why is it easier for them to talk to each other than to their family members?
In discussing Babe’s actions against the Japanese soldiers’ corpses (page 290), George explains, “What scares me isn’t that I couldn’t do what you did. What scares me is that I could.” Do we all carry the capacity for cruelty? Do you find Babe to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
Pick a chapter that stands out to you. What elements make it memorable?
On page 408, Books explains how much he has endured in the war “all in service to this ideal they call America. I do not know exactly what will happen after this, but I do know that I have more than earned my piece of that ideal.” If Books were alive today, would he be satisfied with his piece of the American “ideal”?
After killing Earl Ray, Flora Lee sits and waits for the police. Why does she not try to flee?
On page 245, the narrator says, “George was good, good in a way John never had been and never would be. It wasn’t that John saw himself as a bad man. Rather, he was just a man, a mostly decent man in his own estimation, but a man who also recognized in himself a share of selfishness and pride that are to be found in most men.” What is the difference between a good man and a decent man? By the end of the story, does George’s father become the type of man he wants to be? Why or why not?
Who, if anyone, is the moral authority in the Hayes family?
Thelma names her child Adam, after “the man in the Bible who was the first, who was new, who came into a world without history. She would try to raise this boy without history because history, she knew, might crush him. It might crush them both” (page 416). Give examples of other characters who are haunted by their history.
Thelma and Flora Lee’s friendship is complicated and dangerous for both women. Discuss the ways their struggles are the same and the ways they are different.
The book’s portrait of the 761st Tank Battalion is based on real events and real people. Had you heard of the Black Panthers before reading this book? Why do so many portrayals of World War II focus solely on the contributions of white soldiers?
Explore the book’s main themes—morality, humanity, discrimination, survival—in the context of today’s world, rather than World War II. What has changed? What has stayed the same?
Andy and George take enormous risks to carry out theft, sabotage, and other acts of defiance. What benefit do they derive from defiance that is worth risking so much?
Describe the character of Franklin “Books” Bennett at the beginning of the war and at the end of the war. How do his ideals change, and why?
Many characters struggle with their own identities and the identities of others. Discuss the differences in the ways Earl Ray Hodges, Johan Simek, and Randy “Jazzman” Gibson view the question of identity in America.
Nearly every character undergoes profound changes during the war. Who changes the most, and in what ways? The least?
When Makoto Fujikawa sends George to the POW camp instead of killing him, he says, “What I did was not generous, but selfish. It was for me, not for you” (page 359). What does Fujikawa gain from it?
On page 498, while reflecting on the war, George says, “I saw so much evil while I was over there. I saw so much hate. And I felt so much hate. You almost had to feel hate in order to survive. It just seems to me that where there is so much hate, there has to be a corresponding love—there has to be, even if sometimes we can’t see it or make sense of it.” Do you agree?
This book contains scenes of great violence and cruelty, usually inflicted by one group of people against another. What do you think the author sees as the common element that allows one group of people to be so violent and cruel toward another group?
Discuss the similarities in what Thelma, Luther, and George endure during the war, despite their disparate settings.
In a letter to George on page 291, Thelma writes, “You may have to give up your faith and your hope, George. You may even have to give up your life. But if it’s at all possible, you hold on to your decency. You make sure your decency, your humanity, is the very last thing you give up. Because without it, I don’t think the rest matters too much.” By the war’s end, which characters have managed to hold on to their humanity?