Monday, April 19, 2021

Book Review: Surviving Savannah

By Jami Denison

When it comes to historical fiction, I have two interests: World War II and the Titanic. While Patti Callahan’s latest, Surviving Savannah, doesn’t take place in either of these time periods, her story is inspired by a shipwreck nicknamed “the Titanic of the South.” So naturally I wanted to learn more. 

In 1838, the steamship Pulaski exploded, 30 miles off the coast of North Carolina, on its way from Savannah, Georgia, to Baltimore, Maryland. Onboard were families from the cream of Savannah society… as well as the enslaved people forced to serve them. This is the event that prompted Callahan, a big fan of Savannah and its complicated history, to write the novel. Fortuitously, she had just begun the writing process when the remains of the ship were discovered. 

Callahan’s work of fiction tackles the story through three third-person points-of-view: Everly, a Savannah native and museum curator still mourning the death of her best friend in a hit-and-run in the present day; Lilly, a new mother in 1838 who desperately wishes to flee her abusive husband; and Augusta, Lilly’s maiden aunt and best friend. Augusta and Lilly are both on the Pulaski, along with Augusta’s brother, his wife and their six children, and Lilly’s husband, baby, and enslaved nursemaid Priscilla. 

When Everly is first tasked with curating a project about the doomed steamship, she demurs – she’s still mourning the death of her best friend, Mora, and the project would bring her too close to Mora’s fiancé, Oliver. But she’s captivated by the people involved, and still drawn to Oliver. As she tries to find out what happened to the passengers on the Pulaski, her story alternates with Lilly’s and Augusta’s. Lilly’s, in particular, has always been a mystery. Her husband Adam commissioned a statue of her at the docks, and her name was on a list of survivors in North Carolina—but no trace of her was ever found. 

Also drawing the stories together is the question of fate. Everly is haunted by the capricious nature of Mora’s death—if she hadn’t bumped Mora, Mora wouldn’t have been in the path of the car. And Augusta and Lilly, in their separate lifeboats, wonder why they were saved while others perished. 

While I found the writing to be a little overdone at times, the story drew me in so quickly and completely that I stopped reading halfway through in order to surf the web about the tragedy and the real-life people involved. It was an unnecessary step, though, because Callahan provides a lot of information at the end in a few author’s notes. I also thought she did a sensitive job including issues around slavery in the novel. With a book taking place in the antebellum south, featuring characters who owned other people, some authors want to ignore the “peculiar institution” to focus on other aspects of their story. Callahan’s characters grapple with the institution, and her enslaved character is a vital part of the narrative. The Savannah setting itself acts as an additional character; its past and present coming together vividly. 

My only quibble is that Callahan had some trouble keeping the pace of the novel consistent among the three point-of-view characters. With Lilly and Augusta’s stories concluding before Everly’s, there is some summarizing in place of scene work, and some telling over showing. At times, near the end, her close third-person became omniscient. But these are minor issues in a book that overall works very well. 

There’s something uniquely gratifying about discovering an historical event through fiction rather than a textbook; it prompts the reader to look for information herself rather than having it dictated to her. Not only will Surviving Savannah impress fans of historical fiction, it may also prompt many of them to plan a trip to the city. 

Thanks to Tandem Literary for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Patti Callahan:

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