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  • Writer's picturePatti Callahan Henry

Novel of Shipwreck and Grief Addresses the Big Questions

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Patti Callahan SURVIVING SAVANNAH Author Photo Credit: Bud Johnson Photography

Alabama Public Radio | Don Noble March 10, 2021

Novel of Shipwreck and Grief Addresses the Big Questions

Patti Callahan Henry had 13 “popular” books and then, perhaps to signify more serious content, published the terrifically successful “Becoming Mrs. Lewis” as Patti Callahan.

“Surviving Savannah” is also a “Patti Callahan” novel, and it too is serious business—about death, catastrophe, fate, guilt, God, depression, survival, love, luck—as Zorba would put it, “the full catastrophe.”

There are two stories, 180 years apart; two casts of characters.

In 2018, our first-person narrator, Everly Winthrop, of an old Savannah family, is a history professor at SCAD and a museum curator.

She had, just a year earlier, endured a horrific event. At a parade, a drunk driver ploughed into the crowd and killed Everly’s best friend, Mora.

It could just as well have been Everly who died. Why wasn’t it? Although the real guilty party was the drunk driver, Everly is sunk in grief and very pointed survivor guilt, which has isolated her, cut her off from family and friends, from joy, from life. Now in unproductive therapy, Everly is bitter.

Perhaps Everly will be roused from her fugue state by working on a museum exhibit featuring the newly found wreckage of the steamship “Pulaski,” which went down in 1838. The “Pulaski” was the “Titanic” of its day—modern, fast and, presumably, safe.

The chapters alternate between the two time periods.

In those antebellum and ante-air-conditioning days, some rich Southerners went north for the summer to escape the heat, bugs, malaria, yellow fever etc. of their city, actually bringing some of their slaves with them, along with their china and silver. They set up complete and ostentatious housekeeping in places like Saratoga Springs, New York, a long way to go.

The “Pulaski,” two days out of Savannah, at 11:04 P.M., blows up 35 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Many are killed or drowned at once. But some cling to floating wreckage or manage to get into the leaky and inadequate lifeboats. We see examples of great bravery and sacrifice, and some poor and selfish behavior. Hard choices have to be made.

The survivors are in desperate straits—injured, burned, sunburned, dehydrated, in shock from seeing family and friends die. For four days we observe these survivors, who, though suffering intensely, still have time to think about and sometimes discuss their situation.

“Surviving Savannah” is both a thriller, like the movie “Titanic,” and a novel of ideas.

The big questions arise.

Was the boiler explosion God’s will? What kind of god kills innocent people for no reason?

Do we frail humans have any real power against the forces of nature? Are those forces malign or indifferent? Some readers will see similarities to Steven Crane’s story, “The Open Boat,” where these questions are pondered.

Are the survivors in some way chosen? Just luck? If you survive, does that mean you are chosen, saved for a reason, perhaps to do something special? It is suggested that there is no real imperative for a particular path forward; you have been given a second chance, and what you do with it is up to you.

In fact, a catastrophe like the “Pulaski,” or the Holocaust, on an immensely larger scale, drives some survivors not to a belief in Divine Providence, but to disbelief. One character declares “I will not adore a god that killed my family. There is no such entity.”

It turns out that some innocent and virtuous persons drowned and some of the saved are pretty rotten, including a sadistic wife beater and a boy who grows up to be a notorious slave trader.

Catastrophe has a leveling effect; some become instantly aware of the shallow nature of their social pretensions, the relative worthlessness of their social caste, wealth, their trunks of gold and silver now at the bottom of the sea, and, as is often the case, realize that time is short, life is short, and if there is someone you love, it would be good to tell them, soon, before the raft sinks.

Then, Callahan reminds us, these characters, Everly and the shipwrecked ones, have to survive surviving, and some, saved, choose not to return, to seek a different life altogether.

In the present, Everly immerses herself in reams of documents, and, not unexpectedly, finds some healing in her work. Some, including Mora’s mother, insist “The past can’t be changed, and it’s better not to know”: ignore it, let it lie.

But bringing to light the stories of these long-forgotten people helps Everly bring herself back to life.

About Don Noble

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.

1 Comment

Unknown member
Dec 19, 2022

Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!

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