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Friday, March 05, 2021

Intriguing Dual-Timeline Novel Brings Little-Known American Maritime Disaster to Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Later nicknamed "The Southern Titanic," the luxury steamship Pulaski left Charleston, South Carolina, bound for Baltimore on June 14, 1838.  Her passengers were wealthy, well-heeled, and wholly unaware of the tragedy they were about to be a part of.  When a boiler explosion on board destroyed the ship that night, the vessel sunk in just 45 minutes, leaving about 128 people dead.  The others were stranded on the water, forced to endure hunger, thirst, exposure, terror, and illness before being rescued.  Only 59 people survived.  In January 2018, 180 years after Pulaski sank, divers found the wreckage of the doomed ship.

Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan (available March 9) brings the event to life in a dual-timeline novel that explores the sinking and its aftermath in an intriguing blend of fact and fiction.  The story features Everly Winthrop, a modern-day history professor who is asked to help curate an exhibit of Pulaski artifacts for a Savannah museum.  Still reeling from the death of her best friend a year ago, she finds purpose in studying the famous ship and her elite passengers.  She's especially intrigued by the story of a large family of passengers—some members died in the tragedy, some survived, and others' fates remain unknown.  Everly wants to change that.  As she investigates in the present, the reader taken back to 1838 where they're introduced to Lilly Forsyth, an abused aristocratic wife who's forced to make impossible decisions when Pulaski sinks, giving her an unexpected chance at freedom.  What does Lilly choose?  And how does her life change because of it?  What happens to her after the Pulaski sinks?

I had never heard of the Pulaski, so I learned a lot about the ship and its tragic end from Surviving Savannah.  The dual-timeline format is one I always enjoy.  As per usual, I found myself more invested in the past story than in the present one, although both had enough meat to keep me interested.  Even though the historical characters didn't get enough development, I still found them to be a likable, sympathetic lot.  Same goes for the present cast, although I didn't love Everly, who's just too victim-y for me.  I'm all for a sympathy-inducing lead, but I get impatient with too much wallowing—a character has to be at least a little bit selfless for me to really care about them.  Plot-wise, Surviving Savannah moves along at a steady pace, which kept me turning pages.  As for its storytelling, Callahan's prose gets heavy-handed at times (Everly's dialogue, for instance, often feels too formal and flowery). Still, I enjoyed this novel for its colorful historical backdrop, its engrossing story, its intriguing characters, and its capable (if at times overblown) writing. If you like dual-timeline novels about little-known historical events, definitely check this one out. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of novels about Titanic and other maritime disasters)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:  


for language (no F-bombs), blood/gore, violence, and mild sexual content (including references to sexual abuse)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Surviving Savannah from the generous folks at Penguin Random House via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

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Reading

<i>Reading</i>
Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson

Listening

<i>Listening</i>
The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain



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