Book review: American Ghost, by Hannah Nordhaus
I’d saved this for a Halloweeny read, and I’m glad that I read it after Colin Dickey’s Ghostland. It got a fair amount of negative, or at least disappointed, Goodreads reviews, and I might have felt the same if I hadn’t learned so much from his book about why ghost stories develop, and how the ghosts, along with our fears and worries, are heavily influenced by their eras and the culture of the times. That might sound obvious and oversimplified, Dickey explains it all much better than I can, but Hannah Nordhaus’s book about her great-great-grandmother’s life and maybe-haunting of her former home is a perfect example of the kind of American haunting detailed in Ghostland.
Julia Schuster came to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1865 from Lüdge, Germany, a village in North Rhine-Westphalia, as the wife of Abraham Staab, a successful German-Jewish merchant and pioneer. She lived a lonely, homesick life on the western frontier, even as her husband worked tirelessly to build up the city of Santa Fe. Despite a strong familial network among other German-Jewish settlers of the American Southwest, she was a sensitive, seemingly introverted personality, who bore a number of children and never seemed quite durable enough to weather the difficulties of life at this time, in this place. Even with frequent returns to Germany to see her family and ‘take the waters’ at German health spas, she seemed to sink further and further into depression, and Nordhaus often refers to Julia’s intensifying separation from life and reality.
In the 1970s, Julia’s ghost began appearing at La Posada, a hotel that was formerly the Staab family mansion. Curious employees and the ghost-hunting public latched onto the story, as we do with spooky spirit tales, and began attributing some false history to the woman the ghost once was – she went mad after losing a baby, committed suicide, her husband murdered her – lots of the “usual suspects” when it comes to old timey ghost stories, I’d say. Nordhaus wants to get to the bottom of it all, and the more she uncovers, the less the myths intersect with the truth. Again, Dickey’s Ghostland seems like such an important companion read, as Nordhaus underscores many of his points in her own research and storytelling.
Her investigation is twofold: first, there’s the research aspect, as she combs through archives of documents and contacts distant relatives and other writers and researchers who have worked to uncover the truth about the elusive Julia. She travels to Germany and sifts through the material there, always comparing what was de rigeur for the times with what’s known about the family. The second part is probably what most readers were expecting, or wanted, in what was marketed as a ghost story – the employment of and interactions with a number of psychics, dowsers, and ghost hunters. She really tries it all, tempering her own honest skepticism with details that some of these spiritual professionals are able to conjure that match with the truth. Other times they’re clearly off the mark. Sometimes their guesses blend with the times, and Nordhaus proves that Julia’s life and experiences were marked with common occurrences and hardships, her lingering melancholia seemingly stemming from an inability to cope with these.
Interestingly, we don’t hear a word from Julia herself. She didn’t keep diaries or write letters, and much of the information about her family and especially her husband comes from outside sources like the The New Mexican newspaper, or their daughter Bertha’s diary. That’s fine, but such a shame that nothing exists of her own correspondence, beyond her entries in German of births and deaths in the family record book. The family was very wealthy and high-profile, and Julia had a relationship of some sort, probably not romantic but with some intriguing details, with a French archbishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the subject of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. So the historical connections are fascinating, but unfortunately so much has been lost with time.
At times, the extent of the family history is a little dry. It was absolutely important, but this is a nearly 300 page book about a family’s history that, although mostly interesting, does contain a little too much detail for a general, non-familial readership. But I should stress that it’s mostly well-done and very well-written: Nordhaus is an eloquent, graceful writer and I highlighted many passages that were so beautifully written or meaningful in some way. Maybe because I lost my grandmother a few months ago, and it’s been a slow, painful, confusing processing for me, and anything that explains how we feel about or deal with departed loved ones seems helpful at the moment.
That’s what this is all about, really, processing death and reconciling our lives and futures with our personal histories and that of our families – and the ghosts that rise from rumors, fear, scandal, the specter of mental illness, and just plain sadness. That’s awfully scary; far scarier to me than orbs of light in a bedroom, than the figure of a sad, strange lady by a fireplace.
Jüdische Grabparzelle am Wiener Zentralfriedhof by Rennie Sweeney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest
by Hannah Nordhaus
published 2015 by Harper