May 6, 2021
Patti Callahan Henry's novel "Surviving Savannah" centers on the 1838 wreck of the steamship Pulaski off Wrightsville Beach.
One of the most famous shipwrecks off the Cape Fear Coast will be the focus of the next Prologue book club program 7 p.m. Monday, May 10, co-sponsored by the StarNews and public radio station WHQR.
Patti Callahan Henry will talk about her novel "Surviving Savannah," about the wreck of the steamship Pulaski. Readers can join the virtual conversation with a link at WHQR.org, under the "Culture" tab.
The Pulaski was about 30 miles off the coast of Wilmington on the night of June 14, 1838, when one of its boilers exploded, blowing out the side of the vessel. It sank within 45 minutes.
Called the "Titanic of the South," the Pulaski had been carrying some of the cream of society from Savannah, Georgia, on their annual migration north to Saratgoa Springs, N.Y., and other resorts, to escape the heat of a summer before air conditioning.
Another similarity to the Titanic was the condition of the lifeboats. Pulaski had just two, and they were in such bad condition that one sank almost immediately.
"I heard about the Pulaski years ago from a mariner friend in Bluffton, South Carolina," Henry said in a telephone interview. "But I never really listened to him" -- not until she happened to pass a monument to the Pulaski when she was on a bike ride.
Her interest was further piqued when word came in 2018 that the wreck of the Pulaski had been discovered off Wrightsville Beach. It was an impressive hoard. In the days before central banking and ATMs, the Savannah gentlemen filled trunks with gold coins to cover their vacation expenses. Their wives and daughters packed jewelry for the balls and dinners.
Henry is an experienced diver, "but the Pulaski is more than 100 feet down," she said. "That's too technical a dive for me." Still, she visited Wrightsville Beach.
Her fictional account of the disaster begins in the present, when Everly, a faculty member at the Savannah College of Art and Design, is commissioned to design a museum exhibit of Pulaski artifacts. Still recovering from the violent death of a close friend, Everly finds accounts of the wreck unnerving -- but she encounters a mystery that compels her to go forward.
Flashing back, "Surviving Savannah" follows three women passengers on the Pulaski.
Lily Forsyth, wife of a wealthy planter and mother of a small child, is envied for her beauty. No one knows, however, that Lily's husband beats, bullies and sexually abuses her.
Priscilla, a slave, is also the target of Lily's husband.
Lily's aunt, Augusta, had a fiancee die before their marriage. Now, she faces a barren life as a spinster.
For more about Patti and her books, visit: www.PattiCallahan.com
A native of Philadelphia, Henry moved South with her family at the age of 12, graduated from Auburn University and attended Georgia State. Her other books include "Becoming Mrs. Lewis," a fictional treatment of the romance between Joy Gresham and the famed English novelist C.S. Lewis. A follow-up novel, "Once Upon a Wardrobe," is due out in October. It follows C.S. Lewis' early years and his creation of the fantasy realm of Narnia.
Henry is also a New York Times best-selling author of such novels as "Losing the Moon," "Between the Tides," "The Art of Keeping Secrets," "Driftwood Summer" and "And Then I Found You."
Ben Steelman can be contacted at 910-616-1788 or firstname.lastname@example.org.