Who doesn’t love a good story about finding sunken treasure? When that story is intimately tied to a historic city, even better. Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan (Penguin Publishing Group 2021) checks both boxes.
This fictional novel is based on facts surrounding the unfortunate tragedy of the steamship Pulaski which sunk off the coast of North Carolina in 1838 when one of its boilers exploded. History tells us that around 59 passengers survived (including only two of the thirteen members of the Lamar family, among many other prominent Savannah families), while 128 were lost.
The wreck remained a mystery for nearly 200 years, until 2018 when divers discovered the ship (or at least portions of it) about 40 miles off the coast of North Carolina. Salvage hunters have since been unearthing hundreds of valuable artifacts, including rare coins, watches, jewelry, and silverware which the wealthy passengers had onboard. Perhaps the most famous artifact is a gentleman’s pocket watch stopped at 11:04, the approximate time the boiler exploded.
Surviving Savannah follows museum curator, Everly Winthrop, on a historical scavenger hunt to uncover the stories of the lives lost. By twinned narratives of two survivors, Augusta Longstreet and Lilly Forsyth (modeled after actual survivors), Callahan leads readers along with Everly on a historical adventure from the archives of the Georgia Historical Society, to a musty attic where long-lost family letters are discovered, to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean where Everly and her friends dive to recover artifacts.
Ms. Callahan delights place-lovers with loving descriptions of the city of Savannah, a beautiful historic city founded in 1733 as a new colony for England’s working poor (essentially a debtors’ colony). Real places the characters visit include Georgia Historical Society’s Hodgson’s Hall (circa 1876), one of the oldest library buildings in the country, where Everly untangles the history of the Pulaski and the families onboard. Other notable sites include the Bonaventure Cemetery (circa appx. 1850), which was also a prominent place in one of my all-time favorites, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (Random House 1994), as well as Christ Episcopal Church on Bull Street (founded in 1733 as the first place of worship in the colony), among others.
The novel impressively addresses Savannah’s “complicated history” as a notable participant in the plantation economy of the South. The characters often grapple with a bittersweet love for a place built on the backs of slaves. Ms. Callahan did a good job conveying the importance of recognizing all history–even the grotesque.
Overall, Surviving Savannah earns a Place-Ment Value of 10, for its authentic setting in one of my favorite places and the characters’ meaningful relationship with history. Although the novel was fairly melodramatic (lacking any humor), place-lovers should be willing to overlook large swaths of (occasionally repetitive) postulation for the nature of the story and the author’s and characters’ obvious love of place. Readers who like stories about overcoming grief will also appreciate the main characters’ struggles to cope with modern-day tragedy (as tactfully intertwined with the historic tragedy). Save your guffaws for another fictional novel about finding sunken treasure with profound connections to a historic city.