American Ghost

American Ghost

by Hannah Nordhaus

Overview: An award-winning journalist and author of The Bee Keeper’s Lament attempts to uncover the truth about her great-great-grandmother—a ghost who haunts an elegant hotel in Santa Fe—in this spellbinding exploration of myth, family history, and the American West.

The dark-eyed woman in the long, black gown was first seen in the 1970s, standing near a fireplace. She was sad and translucent, present and absent at once. Strange things began to happen in the Santa Fe hotel where she was seen. Gas fireplaces turned off and on without anyone touching a switch. Vases of flowers appeared in new locations. Glasses flew off shelves. And in one second-floor suite with a canopy bed and arched windows looking out to the mountains, guests reported alarming events: blankets ripped off while they slept, the room temperature plummeting, disembodied breathing, dancing balls of light.

La Posada—“place of rest”—had been a grand Santa Fe home before it was converted to a hotel. The room with the canopy bed had belonged to Julia Schuster Staab, the wife of the home’s original owner, who died in 1896. In American Ghost, Hannah Nordhaus traces the life, death, and unsettled afterlife of her great-great-grandmother Julia, from her childhood in Germany to her years in the American West with her Jewish merchant husband.

American Ghost is a story of pioneer women and immigrants, of ghost hunters and psychics, of frontier fortitude and tragedy, of imagination and lore. As she traces the strands of Julia’s life, Nordhaus reveals a larger tale of how a true-life story becomes a ghost story—and how difficult it can be to separate history and myth.

Gail Reid (06/20/15): Journalist Hannah Nordhaus writes the story of her great-great grandmother Julia Staab, allegedly a ghost at her former home, now an historic hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Julia was brought as a young bride from Germany to the unsettled west in the late 19th century by her husband Abraham. It seems unlikely that Julia ever adapted to life in New Mexico in spite of raising 7 children and enjoying unprecedented wealth as the wife of perhaps the most successful Jewish merchant in the southwest. The author spends a good deal of the book speculating on why visions of Julia have appeared over the decades: whether unhappiness with her marriage, the loss of a child, the yearning for her native land or physical and/or mental illness prevailed.

As a journalist, Nordhaus does a really thorough job of analyzing the times and circumstances through a lot of archival research but some readers may be turned off by her periodic consultations with a range of individuals who communicate with the dead and all matters of parapsychology. Great-great grandmother as a ghost may be the focal point of the story but far more interesting is an account of the German-Jewish settlers and their role and assimilation in the settling of New Mexico.

It's an interesting, well-researched and well-written read, albeit a dry one. If you gravitate to reading about American history, this is a book that will unleash new discoveries. 3+
Rating: ***+

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