Jersey's Best Magazine: Two tales that showcase female strength and creativity in unforgettable ways
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Patti Callahan’s “Surviving Savannah” (Berkley, 432 pp., $26) is a compelling pair of stories of love, fate and loss set more than a century apart and based on a historical event about which little is known.
Everly, a college history professor and lifelong Savannah resident, has been burdened with guilt in the year since the accidental death of her best friend, Mora. She has avoided even seeing her late friend’s fiancé, Oliver, formerly her other best friend, because she’s sure he blames her for the accident as much as she blames herself. So, when she’s approached to guest curate an exhibit featuring the 1833 sinking of the steamship Pulaski off the coast of North Carolina, she initially declines because it will mean having to work with him.
She will change her mind because, at her core, Everly is a passionate researcher who is eager to know all there is to know about the Pulaski. Her fascination developed in childhood, sitting on the knee of her grandfather who entertained her and her sister with stories of the ship that went down, always leaving them to ponder what happened to Lilly Forsyth, a young mother who, with her infant child, presumably perished along with 128 other passengers. To Everly, indeed to all of Savannah, the statue of a young woman positioned on Savannah’s riverfront is emblematic of the historic tragedy at sea.
Except for the characters’ names, all the above is true. The steamship Pulaski did indeed sink in 1838 on its trip to Baltimore when one of its boilers exploded, splitting the ship in two and sinking in less than an hour. The majority of its passengers were Savannah’s movers and shakers, wealthy landowners and businessmen escorting their wives and children north to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to escape the city’s heat and mosquitoes.
Of the four lifeboats on board, only two were seaworthy, ultimately dooming 59 of the passengers and crew to drowning. Lilly Forsyth is a fictitious name, as is that of her Longstreet relatives. But there is that statue of an unidentified young woman on Savannah’s riverfront commemorating the sinking, so Callahan conveniently takes the literary liberty of giving her an identity. Indeed, it is Callahan’s richly detailed descriptions of personae for several key passengers that makes this historical novel come alive.
Flashback to June, 1838, as passengers board the Pulaski for the overnight trip to Baltimore. Lilly is among them, traveling with her abusive husband Adam, their infant daughter Madeline and the child’s Black nursemaid, Priscilla. From this point on, you will follow Lilly and a couple of her Longstreet cousins so closely as to become invested in their fates.
You also will become invested in Everly’s quest to fully research the events following the ship’s sinking — including her examination of artifacts retrieved by divers from the sea floor 180 years later — to create her exhibition.
This is a compelling tale, not least because all the history is true. It’s also a nail-biter of a novel because, in the deft hands of Callahan, it’s easy to forget where fiction meets fact . Book clubs take note. Buy the Book
Prolific novelist Marie Bostwick is known for her warm, humor-laced plots, and her latest, “The Restoration of Cecilia Fairchild” (William Morrow, 416 pp., $16.99 paperback), will not disappoint her many fans.
Thirty-something Celia’s New York lifestyle has crashed. She’s divorced her lazy, philandering husband (“ … five affairs in three years of marriage, the first with the justice of the peace who performed our wedding ceremony”). She’s lost her well-paying advice column for a popular online newspaper that’s just been bought by a media behemoth, so she no longer can afford her apartment rent. Most important of all, her quest to adopt a baby seems less attainable than ever with no husband, no roomy apartment and no income. Quite simply, Celia is at a life-changing moment.
But, it soon turns out she’s only at a game-changing moment. The life-changing moment occurs when she receives a letter informing her she has inherited her Aunt Calpurnia’s Charleston, S.C., home. Confident her financial problems will be resolved as soon as she sells her aunt’s house, she and her best friend Calvin, a former chef and now a cookbook recipe tester, head to Charleston.
Celia was practically raised by Aunt Calpurnia, but after her mother’s death her father separated them and she hadn’t seen her aunt since her early teens.
What she and Calvin discover in Charleston is that the house is in a sorry state of disrepair. Perhaps worse, Calpurnia clearly had become a hoarder. The sprawling home is so crammed with junk that even taking a look around is impeded by stacked furniture, piled-up newspapers, boxes of dishes and more.
Should Celia sell the house as is and let a contractor bulldoze the whole place to make room for an eyesore of a modern dwelling in a historic neighborhood of traditional, old homes? Or renovate it herself and sell it after the work has been done?
She’d like to walk away. But she’s quickly persuaded that a renovated vintage home in Charleston will impress the adoption attorney and increase her chances of getting a baby. So, Calvin returns to New York, and Celia hires a contractor she can afford. She also gets to know her neighbors, reconnects with long-lost friends and even discovers a cousin she never knew about.