In her latest historical novel, Surviving Savannah (Berkley), New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan takes her readers on a riveting deep-sea treasure hunt in a sunken pre-Civil War steamship.
The heartbreaking tale of the opulent steamship named the Pulaski and the myths about its survivors have intrigued Everly Winthrop and her best friend, Moira, since they were kids growing up in Savannah, Georgia. For the past year, though, Everly has been sleepwalking through life because of Moira’s death in a hit-and-run car accident. Having been with Moira at the time it happened, she’s plagued by guilt, causing her to question “why not me?”
When Moira’s fiancée, Oliver, struts into Everly’s art history classroom at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he comes with a proposition. As the director of the River and Seas Museum of Savannah, he wants her to guest-curate an exhibition about the 1883 disaster on the steamship Pulaski, known as the “Titanic of the South.” The Pulaski’s journey was billed as a safe and pleasurable three-day, two-night excursion from Savannah to Baltimore, with “only one night at sea.” The who’s who of Savannah’s society was on board seeking to escape the sweltering southern summer, when the ship’s boiler exploded, leaving most of the crew and passengers dead.
DRAWING CONNECTIONS BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT
The wreckage has just been discovered and, despite their personal history, Oliver convinces Everly that she’s the perfect curator to catalog and present the hidden gems to the world. Initially, Everly refuses, but she can’t resist the draw of her family’s painting of the Pulaski wreck, which beckons her to unravel the mystery of the ill-fated voyage and its 180 passengers. Her painstaking, and obsessive, research discloses the fates of two related influential families, the Longstreets and the Forsyths, who were at the heart of the mystery. Evelyn, too, seeks to fulfill her personal mission; finding the man behind the wheel of the car that killed Moira.
The narrative alternates between Everly’s present-day quests, and the unfolding drama of Lilly Forsyth and her spinster aunt, Augusta Longstreet, as they board the Pulaski. Lilly is a young woman on her way north to Saratoga with her wealthy, abusive husband, her nanny and her five-month-old daughter. Augusta is accompanying her brother, Lamar, an investor in the ship, his wife and their six children. The readers get a peek at their pampered plantation existences when slavery and prejudice rule the land, and a bird’s-eye view as the tragedy unfolds, moment by moment, through the eyes and hearts of these two women.
To solve the puzzle of Lilly’s and Augusta’s fate, Everly embarks on a treasure hunt, not only through the wreckage on the ocean floor off the coast of North Carolina but through family archives and local museums. Her ultimate prize is the shocking discovery of a Forsyth-Longstreet family secret hidden for these 180 years which directly impacts her own life in the present.
POIGNANT, AUTHENTIC AND ULTIMATELY HOPEFUL
Across the centuries, it is as if the three women are living parallel lives, bound by the common denominator of survivor’s guilt. Evelyn mourns for Moira, while Lilly and Augusta mourn for their loved ones lost in the shipwreck. Faced with death, each woman made the conscious decision to live as their loved ones and fellow passengers perished before their eyes. In different ways, the courage of Everly, Lilly and Augusta saved them, strengthening them, while other survivors succumbed to the darkness of human calamity.
Callahan’s atmospheric, detailed descriptions of the costumes, personal effects and hustle and bustle of the wharves, and wagons and waterfront of Old Savannah transport the reader back in time as though they were also passengers embarking on the Pulaski with Lilly and Augusta. To add to the historical accuracy of the novel, Callahan has included meticulous references and a bibliography as a companion to the text. And as someone who’s intimately familiar with modern-day Savannah, I can testify that Callahan has captured the charm of the Spanish Moss-covered live oak trees shading Savannah’s famous squares and the hazy, humid afternoons where only an iced tea will quench the thirst.
Surviving Savannah is a story of triumph over tragedy, the impact of fate and how survivors deal with surviving. Choosing to live full of happiness, our protagonists, Evelyn, Augusta and Lilly, will inspire readers to face their own fears and ask not, “Why not me?” but “What’s next?”