American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest

American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest

4.2 10
by Hannah Nordhaus

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“A haunting story about the long reach of the past.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’S Fresh Air

“In this intriguing book, [Nordhaus] shares her journey to discover who her immigrant ancestor really was—and what strange alchemy made the idea of her linger long after she was gone.” —People



“A haunting story about the long reach of the past.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’S Fresh Air

“In this intriguing book, [Nordhaus] shares her journey to discover who her immigrant ancestor really was—and what strange alchemy made the idea of her linger long after she was gone.” —People

La Posada—“place of rest”—was once a grand Santa Fe mansion. It belonged to Abraham and Julia Staab, who emigrated from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. After they died, the house became a hotel. And in the 1970s, the hotel acquired a resident ghost—a sad, dark-eyed woman in a long gown. Strange things began to happen there: vases moved, glasses flew, blankets were ripped from beds. Julia Staab died in 1896—but her ghost, they say, lives on.

In American Ghost, Julia’s great-great-granddaughter, Hannah Nordhaus, traces her ancestor’s transfiguration from nineteenth-century Jewish bride to modern phantom. Family diaries, photographs, and newspaper clippings take her on a riveting journey through three hundred years of German history and the American immigrant experience. With the help of historians, genealogists, family members, and ghost hunters, she weaves a masterful, moving story of fin-de-siècle Europe and pioneer life, villains and visionaries, medicine and spiritualism, imagination and truth, exploring how lives become legends, and what those legends tell us about who we are.

Editorial Reviews

“A fascinating and nuanced account of her ancestral ghost story and her complicated clan.”
Boston Globe
“Hannah Nordhaus braids personal memoir with historical research and resolute ghost hunting in a narrative that investigates the restless spirit of her great-great-grandmother Julia Schuster Staab.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Beautifully written and self-aware, a memoir that tells a story and searches for broader lessons. . . . Ultimately, American Ghost is not just the story of a haunting, but a story that will haunt its readers.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“Hannah Nordhaus writes a detective story, although it’s not fiction, and a ghost story, although it’s not a chiller. It’s biography and history and the product of investigative research, yet everything of power, even scholarly process, must come from the heart, and so does this story.”
Jewish Book Council
“A spirited memoir of one of the earliest Jewish pioneer families in the American West…A delightful travelogue…reads like a novel.”
Boulder Weekly
“All of us are haunted — by vestiges of the past, and, as Hannah Nordhaus poignantly observes in American Ghost, by the ghosts of who we thought we were or thought we would become.”
Jewish Woman Magazine
Nordhaus’s lyrical memoir … untangles truth and legend, the tale of success and the hardships of life, the woman and the ghost.”
Santa Fe New Mexican
“[A] chronicle of German-Jewish immigration to the American Southwest, a reckoning of family secrets, and an account of the author’s personal ghost hunt.”
Washington Post
“Nordhaus takes us on a journey back in time — by any means possible — in order to draw a better picture of who her great-great-grandmother was.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Part travelogue, part memoir, part ghost story, part history. . . . Nordhaus offers a deeply compelling personal account of her attempts to better understand her own family. . . . The book’s unique blend of genres and its excellent writing make it hard to put down.”
Benjamin Wallace
“Tenaciously researched and beautifully written, American Ghost gives flesh to a lost story, exhumes a bygone world, and animates the ways in which the past haunts all of us. Hannah Nordhaus has performed a lyrical feat of dead-raising.”
Karen Abbott
American Ghost is at once an engrossing portrait of a forgotten female pioneer and a fascinating meditation on the fine line between history and lore. Hannah Nordhaus has crafted a seamless blend of gripping mystery, moving family confessional, and chilling ghost story.”
Hampton Sides
“Here is a very different sort of a Western, a deeply feminine story with a strong whiff of the paranormal—Willa Cather meets Stephen King. Don’t read this book late at night . . . unless you like feeling your neck hairs stand up on end!”
Anne Hillerman
“Hannah Nordhaus approaches the legend of her great-great-grandmother’s ghost with the insight of an historian and the energy of an inspired detective. A fine tale well told. I loved every word.”
"7 Must-Read Books" Elle
“Expertly dissects fact from embroidery. . . . A colorful and engrossing quest.”
Maureen Corrigan
“Whether you believe in ghosts or are just intrigued by their persistence in popular culture, American Ghost is itself a haunting story about the long reach of the past.”
“In this intriguing book, [Nordhaus] shares her journey to discover who her immigrant ancestor really was - and what strange alchemy made the idea of her linger long after she was gone.”
Shelf Awareness
“Fascinating and frequently surprising. Ultimately, American Ghost is a reflection on how the unresolved questions in our own histories can be even more haunting than ghosts.”
Dallas Morning News
“Nordhaus attacks her subject with the same scholarship and lively writing that made her nonfiction debut, The Beekeeper’s Lament, a beloved best-seller. . . . Fascinating.”
The Week
“[A] funny, moving, and suspenseful tale.”
Working Mother
“A gripping account of frontier life from an immigrant Jewish woman’s perspective. It is the author’s connection of the past where she explores the story, trying to separate the history and the myth.”
Denver Post
“The more Nordhaus digs into the history and explores the supernatural dimensions of the story, the more complex and intriguing it becomes. American Ghost is a multi-genre work that succeeds on a number of levels.”
National Examiner
“An incredible story. . . . A haunting tale.”
“A spirited memoir of one of the earliest Jewish pioneer families in the West. . . . A delightful travelogue.”
Mary Doria Russell
“I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in the beautiful literary afterlife Hannah Nordhaus has given her great-great-grandmother. American Ghost is a perfect blend of compassionate empathy, hardheaded journalism, and lucid writing.”
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/08/2014
Journalist Nordhaus (The Beekeeper’s Lament) embarks on a “ghost hunt” for her great-great-grandmother, German immigrant Julia Schuster Staab, in this unique collision of family history, Wild West adventure, and ghost story. Since the 1970s, the grand La Posada hotel in Santa Fe has been subject to sightings of a ghost resembling Julia, who lived there with her husband, Abraham, and their seven children in the late 19th century. Nordhaus, who comes from a long line of skeptics, decides to investigate these rumors. She consults a variety of self-appointed supernatural experts—psychics, tarot-card readers, mediums, and dowsers—as well as more traditional sources such as newspaper archives, family diaries, and aging relatives. She also visits the settings of her grandmother’s life, from villages in Germany to the deserts of New Mexico where the Staabs lived alongside “Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians... Navajos, Apaches, freed slaves, soldiers... cowboys, dry-land farmers... land-grabbers, miners, and shysters.” In the process, Nordhaus uncovers a strain of mental illness that runs through one branch of her family, delves into the lore of the 19th-century spiritualist movement, and discovers how a true-life story can become a paranormal one. Perceptive, witty, and engaging, Nordhaus observes that “it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive... as it is the story.” (Mar.)
“Expertly dissects fact from embroidery. . . . A colorful and engrossing quest.”
From the Publisher
"Perceptive, witty, and engaging, Nordhaus observes that 'it's not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive. . . as it is the story'" —Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Library Journal
★ 01/01/2015
Nordhaus follows her successful The Beekeeper's Lament with the astonishing story of her great-great-grandmother Julia Schuster Staab, who traveled from Germany in 1866 to New Mexico and eventually into the stuff of legend as the troubled ghost that haunts the La Posada Hotel of Santa Fe. Julia is New Mexico's most famous apparition and, were it not for those stories, Nordhaus would probably never have written this book. The author's multifaceted work brings Julia back to life and explores the journey it took to rediscover her narrative. The book's many elements could appeal to a variety of readers, as there are mentions of discovering genealogical origins, insight into Jewish immigration to the United States, the life of a pioneer woman in the Wild West, and finally how someone's ghost becomes a legend. Every aspect of the account is enlightening, well written, and entertaining, from the sojourn to Germany to trace her roots to talking to psychics about the ghostly Julia, and finally Julia herself, who ended up changing and inspiring the author. VERDICT This touching and uplifting work is highly recommended and will appeal to a variety of readers.—Mary E. Jones, Los Angeles P.L., CA
Kirkus Reviews
A journalist's account of how she went in search of the true story behind her great-great-grandmother's life and ghostly reappearances almost a century after her mysterious death. Julia Staab was a member of the Nordhaus family tree and also "Santa Fe's most famous ghost." Born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Germany in the mid-1840s, Julia eventually married a fellow German Jew who went on to become one of Santa Fe's most prominent and scandal-ridden businessmen. As a child, Nordhaus (The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America, 2011) knew of Julia as one ancestor among others. It was only when she learned that her great-great-grandmother had begun haunting the La Posada Hotel—which had once been the Staab family mansion—that "Julia stopped being quite so dead." Many years later, Nordhaus came across a family history that told a fascinating story of "forbidden love, inheritance and disinheritance, anger and madness." Suddenly, understanding Julia's life took on new importance, especially since the specter of personal loss had begun to cast a shadow over Nordhaus. A trained historian, the author tracked down information about Julia, the Staab family and the worlds they inhabited in archives and libraries and through testing her own DNA. The objective evidence she gathered pointed to an unhappy marriage to a solicitous but dictatorial man, a possible liaison with a powerful archbishop and an attempted suicide. Determined to also understand Julia at an emotional and spiritual level, Nordhaus also turned to psychics, mediums and ghost hunters for information. She ultimately discovered that the truth about Julia and her life did not reside in the facts but rather in the spaces between facts: In the end, she writes, those spaces contain the details "that tell us who we are." A thoughtful and intriguing chronicle of familial investigation.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Hannah Nordhaus is the author of the critically acclaimed national bestseller The Beekeeper’s Lament, which was a PEN Center USA Book Awards finalist, Colorado Book Awards finalist, and National Federation of Press Women Book Award winner. She has written for the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, Village Voice, and many other publications.

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American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
ajwal More than 1 year ago
We tell stories to keep our past alive.  In this case, Hannah Nordhaus must not only tell her family's story, but also has to sort through all the versions that have come down to her, from family, from literature, and lore.  She does so in a charming and readable way.  Though she provides a family tree at the beginning to help us follow along, it was too difficult to see on my Nook.  Maybe a real paper  version would be better.  But the story she creates, and comes to understand and accept for herself, is real enough  and comprehensible enough so that not havng access to that particular graphic wasn't a huge problem for me.  This is quite a good read. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
More geneology than ghost story. Love history books like this.
Anonymous 4 months ago
The author sure did her research in getting this book written. It was very interesting, but lost me for awhile as there was so much information given. Great ending.
Anonymous 5 months ago
What an interesting family and exceptional family history. I could barely put it down. Loved the detailed history of the places the authors family lived. The research that went into this was so thorough. Don't miss out reading this. It is much more than a family history. It is a well written, doggone good book.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
I read about this book when I was reading The Beekeepers Lament, and ordered it from Amazon. I am very glad that I did. This is really not a ghost story - or at any rate, not ONLY a ghost story. Hannah Nordhaus follows many paths over much time to tease out the life and times of her ancestor, Julia Staab. One feels Julia's presence in this tale on many occasions, but the true jewel in this book is the completely thorough and entertaining history of the late 19th century in New Mexico - the times, the tales, the mores. My first thought on finishing this book was that, as a native New Mexican, I am certainly glad I wound up here a hundred years after Julia did. And the frightening thought is that is is only a hundred years - we tend to think of the world as a whole progressing at about the same pace into the future. I would recommend this book to anyone with a love of the Southwestern United States, New Mexicans in particular, as well as those interested in the idea of life after death. This is a book you cannot put down until The End.
MahMah More than 1 year ago
This book is a fascinating blend of ghost hunting and family history that held me spellbound on both scores! However, I would recommend reading the Editorial reviews and Overview before before buying this book as you'll get a better idea whether or not this book is your 'cup o' tea. The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five is because I do not like the title. In my opinion, the great, great, grandmother alleged to be the ghost in this story is about as foreign to being cast as an 'American' whether in mortal form or ghostly form! To my way of thinking, once a person dies, their spirit , whether it does not pass 'GO' but goes straight to heaven or whether it hangs about our earthly plane in a ghostly format, it is stripped of things like 'nationalities' . However, if one was going to assign a nationality to this particular ghost it certainly wouldn't have been AMERiCAN!! Big 'boo-boo' me thinks on somebody's part!s
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont belive in ghost but it is a good book%$#'
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Whant to read