Book Talk: AMERICAN GHOST, by Hannah Nordhaus (via Shelf Awareness)

Harper (March 10, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0062249215 / 9780062249210)
Nonfiction: history/biography, 336 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (March 24, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
Book discussion on The 3 Rs Blog AMERICAN GHOST
For decades, stories have circulated that the historic La Posada Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico is haunted. Part of the hotel was once a private home, and the ghost is its former resident, Julia Schuster Staab, great-great-grandmother of author and journalist Hannah Nordhaus (The Beekeeper’s Lament.) In American Ghost, Nordhaus juxtaposes an investigation into her own family history with her adventures in modern-day ghost-hunting, both of which she undertakes in an effort to understand this mysterious ancestor.

Nordhaus’ German Jewish great-great-grandparents were prominent among the early white settlers of Santa Fe. Thanks to that prominence, she finds their public lives reasonably well documented, but personal records are more sparse, and she finds none left by Julia Staab herself. A diary kept by Julia’s daughter Bertha fills in some of the blanks, but Nordhaus finds it frustratingly vague on details that might help answer her biggest question about Julia. Much of what she encounters suggests that Julia was deeply unhappy in Santa Fe; if this was the case, why would she linger after death in a place where she was so miserable in life? Nordhaus’ search for insights into hauntings leads her to consult an assortment of psychics, mediums, and operators of ghost-hunting enterprises. Some of them know of the ghost of La Posada, and some of what Nordhaus learns from them does help her sort out legend from fact.

The supernatural elements of American Ghost are entertaining, while Nordhaus’ chronicle of her unlikely pioneer ancestors is fascinating and occasionally surprising. Ultimately, this is as much a reflection on how we can be haunted by the unresolved questions in our own histories as it is a ghost story.

In 1882, a prosperous merchant named Abraham Staab built his three-story brick mansion – in the French Second Empire-style – on property that now belongs to La Posada. Abraham and his wife, Julia, entertained Santa Fe society in the grand residence decorated with the finest European materials. Legend has it that Mrs. Staab loved her home so much that she has never left it. In recent years, her alleged spirit has been the subject of many ghost tours, an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, and Weird Travels. The Staab House stands today in the form of a bar, where guests of La Posada enjoy cocktails and light Southwestern fare. Some have even reported meeting the grand lady.

The award-winning journalist and author of The Beekeeper’s Lament attempts to uncover the truth about her great-great-grandmother, Julia–whose ghost is said to haunt 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. She died in 1896, nearly a century before the hauntings were first reported. 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, ghost hunters and psychics, frontier fortitude and mental illness, imagination and lore. As she traces the strands of Julia’s life, Nordhaus uncovers a larger tale of how a true-life story becomes a ghost story—and how difficult it can sometimes be to separate history and myth.

From Chapter One

“It began late at night, as these stories do. It was in the 1970s, at a hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A janitor was mopping the floor in an empty downstairs room. He looked up from his bucket and saw a dark- eyed woman standing near the fireplace. She wore a long, black gown, in the Victorian style of a hundred years earlier, and her white hair was swept up into a bun.

“She was also translucent. Through her vague outline, the janitor could see the wall behind her. She was there and yet she wasn’t. She looked into his eyes, and the janitor worried that he might be losing his mind. He looked down and told himself to keep mopping. When he looked up again, she was gone. She had possessed, he told a local newspaper, an ‘aura of sadness.’

“The janitor’s account was the first the world would hear of the shadow woman in the hotel, but it would not be the last. Some days later, a security guard saw the same woman wandering a hallway. He took off running. A receptionist later saw her relaxing in an armchair in a downstairs sitting room: there, then gone.”

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