Book Review: Surviving Savannah


Pulaski Ship

Model of the ship Pulaski which sank off the coast of Wilmington, NC on June 18, 1838.

Do you want to live?  This is the quintessential question Patti Callahan dares to ask trauma survivors in Surviving Savannah.  The answer makes all the difference in the quality of our second chances at life.  It is a twist on Oliver Wendall Holmes’ more subtle wisdom:

To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it ~ but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie in anchor.

As y’all know, the courage to navigate uncharted waters is what this site is all about.  The Holmes quote has been on my business cards for decades.  But, this book has me questioning whether I’m sailing or drifting or rotting out the hull of my ship while languishing in the harbor.  There are times when we all need someone to call us on our bullshit:

Survival doesn’t ensure a happy ending, and it isn’t the end of the story.

Pulaski Sinking

The Pulaski split in half after the boiler exploded.

I finished reading Surviving Savannah on June 18 which ironically was exactly 183 years after the Pulaski blew up and sank, and it was the day my beloved muse and service cat Bitzie peacefully crossed over the Rainbow Bridge in the wee hours of the morning at age 19.5 from cancer and dementia.  My watch stopped at 12:04 AM.  The Pulaski blew up at 11:04 PM.  It was also the first official Juneteenth federal holiday.  Synchronicity is something I’ve always taken seriously.

The book is a well-researched weaving of historical fact with the author’s fictional imagination. It asks the question: what happens to people after they survive a tragedy?  The plot moves along the parallel tracks of tragedy survivors in 1838 and present day:

On a balmy summer morning in Savannah, Georgia, on June 13, 1838, a cotton merchant, shipper, financier and steamboat pioneer named Gazaway Bugg Lamar [Lamar Longstreet in the book] and his family boarded the gleaming new steamship Pulaski.  It was the fourth voyage of the fine ship and she was headed north to Baltimore.  This family ~ a husband and wife, their six children, and also Gazaway’s sister [Augusta Longstreet] and his niece (his brother’s daughter) [Lilly Forsyth] expected smooth sailing and only one night at sea before arriving in Baltimore to travel on to enjoy their summer holiday in Saratoga Springs, New York.

But what we expect and what we get are rarely the same things.

Savannah River

Savannah River, 1838

Everly Winthrop is a history professor and museum curator whose family owns a painting of the Pulaski. Her late grandfather regaled her with tales about what happened to fictional character Lilly Forsyth.

Lilly was the niece of Augusta Longstreet (based on the life of Rebecca Lamar McCloud, sister of Gazaway Bugg Lamar), who chronicled the ship’s demise (published in 1919). Everly discovered their letters after the ship was found at the bottom of the Atlantic off the shores of Wilmington, NC:

Was it fate when the ship shattered and I lived while others died? . . .I don’t believe fate chose who should live or perish according to their worthiness.  I didn’t deserve to live any more than my little two-year-old nephew deserved to die.  The life we live is the life we choose with every decision of the heart, soul and mind.  What do we do with our survival?  Now what?

Augusta was the “many times” great grandmother of Everly’s best friend Mora Dunmore. She was engaged to Oliver before she was killed by a drunk hit-and-run driver.  While Everly survived, she was stuck in a muck of grief.  During a deep dive to collect artifacts from the sunken ship, Everly made the decision that she wanted to live again.

Pulaski Watch

This pocket watch belonged to Gazaway Bugg Lamar [Lamar Longstreet in the book].  Because it stopped at 11:04 PM when the Pulaski exploded, it has become an iconic artifact.

Lilly’s husband Adam Forsyth is wealthy, charming, and abusive behind closed doors.  Spoiler alert:  She thinks he drowned after the explosion.  He didn’t.  She, her daughter, and her slave Priscilla fund their flight to Michigan by selling Lilly’s jewels.  Fortunately, Lilly’s family keep her new location secret. . .a precursor to Address Confidentiality Programs.

SurvivingSavannah

Patti Callhan is the author of Surviving Savannah.

The book’s philosophical ending merited the slog it took me to get there:

Augusta Longstreet leaves that question for us to answer.  Now what?

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