Patti Callahan observes that “we read historical fiction because these stories help us today,” and her novel Surviving Savannah could not be more perfect for this moment.
A gripping historical tale that is split between the 1838 sinking of the U.S.S. Pulaski and the modern day, Surviving Savannah is a novel about love, tragedy and “how to survive the surviving.” This is Callahan’s second historical novel. The first was the best-selling Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which explores the life of C.S. Lewis’ wife, Joy. She has written many Southern contemporary novels under the name Patti Callahan Henry. (Callahan’s appearance earlier this week in the Atlanta History Center’s “Author Talk” series should soon be posted on the center’s YouTube archives.)
On a bright, hopeful day in June 1838, the Longstreets (based on the historical Lamar family) — along with many of Savannah’s elites — board the Pulaski to head north for the summer. Lilly Forsyth, a young mother, and her courageous Black maid Priscilla join the Longstreets, including Lilly’s favorite aunt Augusta Longstreet, for what they expect will be an easy journey up the East Coast to Baltimore. It is the Pulaski’s fourth voyage and everyone anticipates an easy passage.
In a hinge of fate, a ship’s engineer pours cold water into an empty, overheated boiler causing it to explode. The ship catches fire and sinks, taking most of its passengers with it. Lilly and Augusta struggle to keep themselves and their loved ones alive, and the chapters that explore their challenges to find shore and safety are exemplary and vivid.
Years later, in current time, Everly Winthrop is a history professor in Savannah who has grown up on her grandfather’s stories about the passengers on the Pulaski, particularly Lilly Forsyth, who was never found. When Everly is asked to curate an exhibition of recently salvaged artifacts from the discovered remains of the Pulaski, she thrills at the chance to find the truth in her grandfather’s tales. As she dives into the stories of the Longstreets, the tragic Pulaski and old Savannah, she discovers secrets and lessons that help her move beyond her own devastating past.
Everly’s discovery of the Pulaski story and her subsequent research is a rough mirror of Callahan’s own introduction to the tale. She grew up in the North and in South Florida before attending Auburn University, eventually receiving her graduate degree from Georgia State University. Savannah is one of her favorite cities, and she believes “that there is always something new to learn about it,” but it took a few nudges from a good friend for the story of the doomed ship to ignite her imagination. Once it did, she was hooked and knew it would be her next book.
“As I researched and realized how much this affected the people of Savannah — and one family in particular — I knew I wanted to tell this story, but I didn’t know how,” she says. “I didn’t know if this would be part of a smaller part of a bigger novel or the shipwreck itself was a novel. I was about three weeks into my research when I found a headline that the shipwreck had been discovered. Total chill bumps. I realized that while I was trying to write about the lost stories of these passengers, [the researchers] were trying to bring up the lost treasure and belongings of these passengers.”
The story took shape after that, but finding the title was challenging. After culling a list of 45 possibilities, she and her publishing team decided on Surviving Savannah, a title with layers of meaning that all point to the novel’s richness and timeliness.
The title references how each main character survives their tragedy and how Savannah, as a city, has survived. Savannah has endured earthquakes, fire and war. Much of the modern-day sections of the novel read as a love letter to the city, as Everly wanders the oak-lined streets, explores museums and visits beautiful old homes stuffed with secrets.
There is tragedy here, too, because Savannah’s early wealth was largely built on slavery, a topic that is handled wisely in Callahan’s sensitive novel. As Everly prepares her exhibition, she wants to show a complete picture of the disaster but struggles to find equal representation of the Black experience in the historical record. When she shares her frustration with her Black friend Sophie, Sophie says “give them [the Black passengers] humanity in that curation. Show the struggle and the survival, not just the names.”
This idea of depicting a more complete past threads through the novel, and was a critical element of the project for Callahan. As she says about Savannah in a statement that could easily be applied to the treatment of the whole history of the South: “It’s important to show the history of this romantic city not just as mythology but as reality, too. We have to really look at our complicated past and not gloss over it.”
Surviving Savannah is a compulsive read that’s difficult to put down. But because it tackles recovery from unexpected tragedy and the processing of deep historical hurt, it’s hard not to read it as something of a guide for how to emerge from the tumult of the past year. Callahan’s poignant novel is consciously about a shipwreck and three women’s processing of unforeseen disaster, yet in these pages lie messages to help us move forward from COVID-19 and the necessary conversations prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as Everly, Augusta and Lilly are faced with a new world after their tragedies, we too are grappling with how to progress after a devastating pandemic and a painful reckoning with our troubled history.
When asked if any of these issues were present as she finished the manuscript, Callahan says that she “did not change a word after the pandemic hit.” But she admits that as she was reading the final pages before publishing, she saw that there was some obvious crossover between the novel’s themes and the needs of the time. “This is a story about resilience, and that is one of the reasons we read stories from the past,” she says. “People have gotten through worse than this. They’ve gotten through better than this. And yet history is here to show us that we survived, that we thrived, that we have all the resilience that we need.”
Indeed, this novel proves the serendipity of literature: The book you need will come along right when you need it. Surviving Savannah is just the engrossing novel to transport us in a rush of vivid storytelling away from our immediate situation and then bolster us at its conclusion with the courage to tackle our challenges. It’s one you won’t want to miss.