Saturday, March 06, 2021

22. Surviving Savannah

Surviving Savannah. Patti Callahan. 2021. [March] 432 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: I was born in water. For all of my thirty-two years, my mom, Harriet Winthrop, had told the story over and over to anyone who’d listen. I could recite her words verbatim; I’d been told them since my memory began. A tale worth telling, she would say when I rolled my eyes as she launched into the story.

Premise/plot: Everly Winthrop, one of our heroines, is nervous but excited about the new exhibit she'll be curating at the museum. The Pulaski has just been found and its treasures are being recovered. She grew up hearing stories--bountiful stories--from her grandfather about this tragic shipwreck--the boiler on this steamship blew up. As she unravels the past--the shipwreck, its passengers, the stories as revealed both in artifacts and accounts (letters, diaries, articles, books, family trees, etc.)--she comes to peace (mostly) with her own past. She's no stranger to loss herself. Every day she questions: why did I survive?

Surviving Savannah has THREE heroines. Augusta Longstreet and Lilly Forsyth are our other two heroines--both passengers on the Pulaski. Augusta is traveling with her brother and his family. Lilly is traveling with her young daughter--a nursing infant--her abusive husband (boo, hiss) and Priscilla an enslaved nursemaid. The two women are friends. 

My thoughts: Surviving Savannah is historical fiction with a splash of romance. A handful of the fictional characters are loosely based on historical figures. Loosely based. But mainly the characters are fictional. The Pulaski disaster was real enough, tragic enough. The story--even knowing that the characters are fictional--is heartbreaking. 

The book celebrates friendship, family, STORIES, legacies, and finding meaning wherever however you can. It is very much a novel about horrifying grief, traumatic experiences, and answering the question NOW WHAT? 

It is not a light, fluffy, insubstantial historical soap opera with costumes. It is DARK and substantive. It asks plenty of questions but doesn't answer those questions the same way for all the characters--if that makes sense. 

I thought it was well-written. 

The character I personally identified most with was Augusta. I loved, loved, loved this character. Her situation was HEARTBREAKING and TERRIFYING. And I felt every moment of her angst and pain.

I would say it's nearly clean--there's one very brief scene with the abusive husband that is NOT clean, but it's also not romanticized or meant to be enjoyed. The story is mainly too focused on life and death and the meaning of it all to focus on throwing in steamy scenes for the fun of it.


The beginning of the tale was always the same, but his stories of the ship’s passengers’ survival changed with his moods—each different but as vivid as the next. Some survived by riding a whale to shore; others swam underwater and grew gills. Occasionally, passengers were rescued by great flying birds that swooped down and carried them home. This time, he used his deepest voice. “When the Kraken heard the explosion from the very bottom of the sea, he rose to the sound and found people thrashing in the water—men, women and children.” “Did he eat them?” Allyn was the most afraid of the wild Norse octopus-creature who terrorized sailors. 
“Dad, you scare them, and then they can’t sleep. I’m the one who suffers when they come crawling into my bed and wake me in the middle of the night.” Papa brushed the tobacco from his pants. “It’s good for them to have a large imagination. They’re smart enough to know what’s real and what’s not.” “Dad, they are only six and eight.” “The perfect age to learn about the wildest stories that make us who we are.” Every story Papa told brought my imagination to life, vivid and real. And also yes, he was right—I knew the difference between real and imaginary. A bird couldn’t carry a child to safety, and the Kraken didn’t swim the Carolina shores.
I know this: we’re made of stories, legends and myths just as we are made of water, atoms and flesh. Once you know it, you can’t un-know it; you can’t pretend that everything that happened before you were born doesn’t have something to do with who you are today. 

“That morning of June 13, 1838, the famous Savannah plantation owner, banker and ship financier Lamar Longstreet boarded with his wife, their six children, his sister, and his niece. He had helped to both finance and oversee the building of the beautiful ship. He was there to show off his achievement, display his confidence in the ship and take his family north for the summer.” Oliver stood silent for a dramatic breath, and I leaned forward, almost touching him. “Deep in the night, a terrible explosion occurred and within forty-five minutes the ship sank. Passengers were cast into the sea and drowned. Lamar Longstreet’s oldest son, Charles, fourteen years old, acted with heroic courage on that horrendous night and during the days surviving at sea that followed. For his actions he was dubbed ‘the Noble Boy.’” “So he survived?” “Yes, he survived . . . only to become the man they called ‘the Red Devil.’” Oliver now turned to the Wanderer and set his hand on top of the plexiglass. “Charles Longstreet refitted this pleasure schooner and fooled the country so he could illegally bring to Savannah from the African Congo human cargo of over four hundred men, women and children. He was known to be both relentless and cruel. He was also part of the Fire-Eaters group, rabble-rousers agitating for a civil war.” “Unbelievable,” I said. “A young boy survives the sinking of the Pulaski as a hero and becomes a terror called the Red Devil?” “And Lilly Forsyth was his cousin.” 
“This wreck”—I waved my hand around the room—“is all about destiny. And fate. If there is such a thing. Who made it to the lifeboats, and which lifeboats at that. Two were sturdy; two were cracked. Who found something to cling to. Who lived and who died . . . and then what the survivors did afterward.” 
The idea that surviving brings everyone to a new and better place is a lie told by people who need the world to make sense. 
There were many ways to survive and many ways to survive the surviving. The darkness was there, too. Survival wasn’t just about the happy story of living. Some didn’t survive the living. Some did awful things with the second chance. 
“Doesn’t writing these cards make you think of how someone might sum up your life? If two hundred years from now someone made a story card of it. What would it say?”



© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Carol said...

I was shocked by the lies, too, although it still happens. It's awful to think about and I wonder how people live with their consciences!