March 9, 2021
It was called "The Titanic of the South." The luxury steamship sank in 1838 with Savannah's elite on board; through time, their fates were forgotten--until the wreck was found, and now their story is finally being told.
When Savannah history professor Everly Winthrop is asked to guest-curate a new museum collection focusing on artifacts recovered from the steamship Pulaski, she's shocked. The ship sank after a boiler explosion in 1838, and the wreckage was just discovered, 180 years later. Everly can't resist the opportunity to try to solve some of the mysteries and myths surrounding the devastating night of its sinking.
Everly's research leads her to the astounding history of a family of eleven who boarded the Pulaski together, and the extraordinary stories of two women from this family: a known survivor, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece, Lilly Forsyth, who was never found, along with her child. These aristocratic women were part of Savannah's society, but when the ship exploded, each was faced with difficult and heartbreaking decisions. This is a moving and powerful exploration of what women will do to endure in the face of tragedy, the role fate plays, and the myriad ways we survive the surviving.
The Price of Survival
Surviving Savannah is a sweeping tale about the guilt of surviving a disaster, and the grief of wondering if it should have been you that died. It is also a story about what we value in life, and how to give into love even when we feel least worthy of it’s embrace. Many historical fiction books are told by flip flopping between the past and present, but Callahan puts a unique twist on this by advancing the historical plot through the alternating view points of Lily Forsyth and Augusta Longstreet, who survive the disaster in very different ways. Meanwhile the present is told through the eyes of the historian trying to piece together what really happened on the night of the disaster. The historian, Everly Winthrop, is dealing with survivor’s remorse after witnessing the murder of her best friend in a DUI fueled hit-and-run accident, which is juxtaposed skillfully with the guilt experienced by Lily and Augusta following the sinking of the Pulaski. As it turns out, survivor’s guilt following a major disaster is not very different from survivor’s guilt following a much more personal tragedy.
Callahan does an excellent job of reminding us of the hard topics of the antebellum era, addressing spousal abuse, lack of women’s rights, and the view of slavery as “wrong but necessary” for preserving a certain standard of living among the Southern elites. I don’t like to give spoilers, but I will say in this instance, that Lily and Augusta redeem themselves by realizing the evils of slavery through the survival ordeals that they experience alongside enslaved people. By telling the present day events through the eyes of a historian, she further advances the condemnation of slavery as an institution, and acknowledges how far society still has to travel towards equity and equality. Additionally, the status of women as not much more than property is explored by looking at things like the ship manifest and the obstacles faced by women who desired to leave abuse relationships. Finally, the various ways in which trauma can affect the future development, and choices, of its victims is handled well; although most of the storylines have some version of a happily-ever-after, there are also gritty and dark outcomes, as would be expected following a major disaster.
“Tragedy– it can come from anywhere at any time. How do we go through life knowing that? How did we ever not know it? And yet we pretend we’re safe. It’s absurd.” — Everly Winthrop
The destruction of the Pulaski, and the stories of its survivors, are based on fact, and in my opinion Callahan did an excellent job of honoring the time period and the real victims and survivors with this book. The research into the disaster and how trauma would affect people seems to have been exhaustive, creating a thought provoking and engrossing narrative. If historical fiction is your genre of choice, I highly recommend Surviving Savannah.
Meghan is a coffee connoisseur, devoted milspouse, and exhausted momma to a three year old daughter and three dogs. She enjoys hiking, glamping, and traveling. You are mostly likely to find her reading good books in a hammock with a view of the ocean or mountains.