“…I believe that the past echoes into our present time if only we turn our ear toward its stories.”
– Patti Callahan
History gives us some amazing stories, quite often more amazing than we could ever make up. Certainly it is true of the story told in “Surviving Savannah,” Patti Callahan’s second historical fiction novel following her critically acclaimed “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” published in 2018.
This is an impressively detailed account of the explosion and sinking of the S.S. Pulaski off the coast of North Carolina in 1838, and the survival of roughly half of her passengers.
Sailing from Charleston and destined for Baltimore full of wealthy Savannahians, the steamship was lost to the ocean on June 14, 1838, when it is believed copper boilers exploded, tearing the ship apart.
Often referred to as “the Titanic of the South,” the Pulaski was built with great pride, and advertised as solid and sea worthy. It was hoped the Pulaski would help restore confidence for seafaring travelers after the steam packet “Home” wrecked on Ocracoke Island in 1837.
The novel primarily follows the Longstreets, a prominent family that was part of elite Savannah Society, particularly Augusta Longstreet and her niece, Lilly Forsyth. The sinking of the Pulaski was a huge news event when it occurred, affecting almost every person living in Savannah either directly or indirectly.
Interestingly, the Pulaski became a major news story again with the 2018 discovery of the remains of the ship some 200 feet below the ocean’s surface off the coast of North Carolina, the passengers’ belongings of jewelry, gold coins and cherished keepsakes still aboard.
Alternating the narrative between the time period of the accident and present day, we meet Everly Winthrop, a history professor in Savannah, who takes on the job of curating a collection of artifacts found on the ship – 180 years later.
The two stories take the reader from the horror and desperation of a shipwreck to modern-day Savannah as Everly works to put together an exhibit that will honor the lost and tell their incredible story. The result is a story greater than the sum of the two parts separately.
This book was difficult to set down. There is mystery: What happened to Lilly Forsyth after she survived the shipwreck? There is tension and drama: You can feel the emotions as you read personal accounts of the nightmare of days and nights at sea.
And there is an abundance of courage, selflessness and amazing grace, demonstrating the best of humankind amidst the worst of times.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves this author’s work, historical fiction and mysteries, as well as those who love or have a connection to the city of Savannah.
Glenda Harris is a freelance writer, the creator of the online book club “The Book Vault” and an aspiring novelist. She lives in a Lowcountry cottage in the Georgia woods with her husband and Boykin spaniel, Buddy.