By Patti Callahan
Review by H. M. Cotton
Savannah, Georgia is a city filled with so much grace and Southern charm, the type of place with perfectly manicured front lawns and—quite literally—secrets in the attic: the perfect Southern gothic setting. For as much beauty and history as the city has, there’s also a sense of sadness and mystery tucked along its streets. Patty Callahan’s Surviving Savannah captures the lush and rich setting of Savannah, but doesn’t overlook that the city has a past filled with sorrow and pain. One traumatic event in particular—the tragedy of the steamship Pulaski—provides the backbone of Callahan’s narratives and leaves readers to question, “How will we survive the surviving?”
Built in 1837, the new hadn’t even worn off the Pulaski when it left Savannah harbor on Wednesday, June 13th 1838 bound for an overnight in Charleston, South Carolina with a final destination of Baltimore, Maryland. On board were the finest of Savannah’s society looking to escape the overwhelming temperatures of the Georgia summer for the cooler climes of the north. The steamer made it as far as Charleston, but late in the night of June 14th, the boiler ran dry and was refilled with cold water. The following explosion ripped the ship in half plunging passengers and crew into the midnight waters of the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina. Most perished in the 45 minutes it took the wreckage to be swallowed by the deep. A few clung to life for a slow death of exposure. A handful lived to find their way back to solid ground.
But is survival really all that wonderful when you’ve lost so much along the way?
Surviving Savannah opens from the vantage point of present-day character Everly. Her story follows a fascination with the wreck of the Pulaski which originates from childhood stories told by her grandfather. Her adult self, however, is stuck on autopilot as she works to navigate grief after the passing of her best friend in a horrific freak-accident. Everly finds herself caught between wanting justice for her friend while also shying away from an uncertain future. In the midst of all of this, she’s presented with an offer she can’t turn down: will she curate a museum experience from the wreckage of the newly discovered Pulaski remains? To do so will literally dig up the past, bringing her face to face with hidden family secrets, a man on the run, and the skeleton in the closet of her newest acquaintance.
Interwoven with the present-day narrative are two other points-of-view from 1838 characters—Lilly Forsyth and Augusta Longstreet. Both ladies are related to the primary investor of the Pulaski and have joined the voyage as a sort of good-faith gesture demonstrating the safety of the ship. While these characters are loosely based on the historic Lamar family, much of their story is an imagining of what their lives might have been like. However, the characters feel real in their thoughts, motives, and fight for survival. Lilly boards the steamer with her newborn baby, abusive husband, and enslaved wet-nurse Priscilla. She is anxious about her future and in search of a new trajectory for herself and her child. Meanwhile, Augusta is filled with concern over Lilly’s situation while also nursing distant hopes of pursuing a love interest who has also boarded the ship. But everything changes on that fateful night of June 14th.
Callahan takes readers through a deep dive into a dark night of the soul. She meets us in the darkness with difficult questions and beautiful suppositions. And, let me tell you, this book is an absolute page turner. As someone who has been to Savannah and had the chance to experience the setting in person, I feel the accuracy of Callahan’s rich descriptions which float off the page:
In Forsyth Park petals fell from the tulip poplars like pink confetti, and the grass was vibrant green. Dandelions persisted stubbornly despite bikes and countless feet running over them. The magnolia trees with their creamy blooms as big as dinner plates would later leave unopened pods on the ground, where they would burst with red seeds that stained the concrete.
I was pulled through the novel’s spell-like framework with alternating chapters from the three narrators’ perspectives and could feel their stories come to life. Callahan also makes tangible the accuracy of emotional uncertainty when faced with one’s own mortality. But more than that, I found truth on the page:
We are our truest selves when life and death walk hand in hand. When crisis comes, and tragedy explodes, our true character comes to the fore. Men throw other men overboard or sacrifice their own place in the boat to save a woman and child. Women save themselves or a friend. Choices are made. Still, life always propels us toward living. Something in us wants to live, if we can tap into that part of our soul.
This book challengingly encapsulates the idea of what it means to live life after we encounter trauma. How do we piece back together our lives and move on? Do we succumb to the tragedy? Or do we learn to yearn and hope for a better tomorrow? Callahan unpacks the human element through parallel journeys of love, loss, and the quest to make meaning out of tragedy. How do we survive the surviving?
That choice, reader, is up to you.
H. M. Cotton is a writer and teacher from Birmingham, Alabama.