Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Ben Steelman StarNews Correspondent March 13, 2021
South Carolina Author Patti Callahan dramatizes a real life, 19th century Southern shipwreck story in her novel, "Surviving Savannah." (Photo credit: Bud Johnson Photography
Some called it the Titanic of the South.
On June 14, 1838, the steam packet Pulaski, with some of the cream of Savannah society aboard, was cruising between Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore. Then, at about 11:04 p.m., the starboard boiler exploded.
The paddle-wheeler sank within 45 minutes in open water. Only four lifeboats were on board -- two were so dried and cracked by exposure to sunlight that they leaked and sank within moments of launch.
There was no radio, of course, and no Coast Guard as such. Survivors clung for days to floating wreckage, including a fragment of the promenade deck. Many died of exposure. Of the 180-plus passengers and crew, fewer than 60 survived.
It's a gripping tale, and South Carolina author Patti Callahan does a yeoman's job of dramatizing it in her novel "Surviving Savannah."
The story has more than a passing connection to Wilmington. The Pulaski went down about 40 miles from Wilmington -- Callahan quotes an account from an actual Port City newspaper, The Advertiser -- and there it was discovered, in 115 feet of water, in the summer of 2018.
Callahan retells the story through the eyes of three women.
South Carolina author Patti Callahan dramatizes a real-life, 19th century Southern shipwreck story in her novel "Surviving Savannah."
In 2018, historian Everly Winthrop, a Savannah native, is hired by a Savannah museum to curate an exhibit of artifacts recovered from the Pulaski. Everly has been in a pit of depression and guilt since her best friend's death in a hit-and-run accident, but the job revitalizes her.
She begins to research the background of the ship and its passengers -- coming across some stories that modern-day Savannah residents would prefer not to be told -- and even makes an eventful dive on the wreck site itself.
Back in 1838, the story follows two women passengers, Lilly Forsyth and Augusta Longstreet, relatives and best friends. Beautiful and married to a wealthy man, Lilly is the object of envy. Her husband, however, is a domestic tyrant and a wife beater. As the family migrates northward to escape the Southern heat (no air conditioning), Lilly is plotting an escape with her infant daughter and her slave nursemaid, Priscilla, who's also been victimized by the cruel Adam Forsyth.
Augusta, seemingly doomed to spinsterhood by the death of her fiance, is along to help care for her brother's children. After the sinking, she will have to battle to keep at least some of those children alive.
Callahan ("Becoming Mrs. Lewis") introduces elements of Hallmark-style romance: When will Everly realize that she loves Oliver, the museum director? Compared to the epic agonies of Lilly and Augusta, Everly's problems seem shallow.
Still, Callahan is a highly competent, if conventional, storyteller, and the narrative moves along speedily. Readers will stay tuned to see what happens next,
"Surviving Savannah" offers a sweetly coated history lesson; Callahan did her research. The Pulaski, for example, has been a rich wreck, because so many of the passengers were heading north to Saratoga Springs or other resorts. They took fortunes in gold and silver coins along to support their lifestyles -- there were no ATMs back then, and paper money and checks were iffy propositions when banks often failed. They also took their silverware and silver plates so they could entertain in the style to which they became accustomed. (They also brought slaves, who lived much, much more simply.)
Several scenes in the novel are set in modern-day Wrightsville Beach. In real life, some of the Pulaski survivors reached New River Inlet, in Onslow County, in the remaining lifeboats and were taken to Wilmington. A few real-life Wilmington historical figures, including members of the De Rosset family, put in appearances as well.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or email@example.com.
By Patti Callahan
Berkley Books, $26
About Patti Callahan
Patti Callahan is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of sixteen novels and podcast host. With a belief that the power of story changes us and moves us, Patti’s historical fiction explores the untold stories of the past that affect us now.
She is the recipient of The Christy Award — A 2019 Winner “Book of the Year”; The Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year for 2020 and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year for 2019. She is the co-host and co-creator of the popular weekly online Friends and Fiction live web show and podcast. A full-time author and mother of three children, she now resides in both Mountain Brook, Alabama, and Bluffton, South Carolina with her husband. Read More