A spirited memoir of one of the earliest Jewish pioneer families in the American West…A delightful travelogue…reads like a novel.
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.
Nordhaus’s lyrical memoir … untangles truth and legend, the tale of success and the hardships of life, the woman and the ghost.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A fascinating and nuanced account of her ancestral ghost story and her complicated clan.
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.
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.
Here is a very different sort of a Western, a deeply feminine story with a strong whiff of the paranormalWilla Cather meets Stephen King. Don’t read this book late at night . . . unless you like feeling your neck hairs stand up on end!
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.
Booklist (starred review)
An incredible story. . . . A haunting tale.
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.
[A] funny, moving, and suspenseful tale.
A spirited memoir of one of the earliest Jewish pioneer families in the West. . . . A delightful travelogue.
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.
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.
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.
Expertly dissects fact from embroidery. . . . A colorful and engrossing quest.
Though the digital age may be an impediment to our relationships with the living, its tools are simultaneously connecting us to those on the other side. Through the speed and convenience of the Internet, researching one's family tree has become easier than ever. In her book
American Ghost, Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper's Lament, hopes to use any tools at her disposal to discover whether or not her great-great-grandmother Julia is indeed haunting the Santa Fe hotel she once called home. Julia was born Julie Schuster in Lüdge, Germany, in 1844. At the age of twenty-one she married Abraham Staab, who had gone to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to make his fortune and returned to Germany to find a wife. Life in the nineteenth-century Southwest wasn't exactly a piece of cake for anyone, much less a young German woman who knew no one in America and couldn't speak the language. Julia and Abraham were already well acquainted with what it meant to be an outsider. They were both Jewish. But whereas in Germany they were always considered "other," in Santa Fe their racial identity was established in the context of the white settlers around them. "If the Jewish community had been small and insular in Germany, it was even smaller in Santa Fe," Nordhaus writes. "Jews had been dark-skinned in Germany. Now they were 'white,' at least when compared with the Indians and mestizo Spanish and free blacks and Chinese who lived beside them." But despite Abraham's success as a businessman and the couple's apparently tolerant new community, all was not well for Julia. One doesn't end up a ghost by living a happy life, Nordhaus assumes. As Julia and Abraham's home in Santa Fe is now a hotel, visitors who have claimed to see Julia's ghost have offered ideas about what may have happened to her. Perhaps Abraham was abusive. Perhaps he didn't love her. One psychic consulted by Nordhaus claims Julia drowned herself in her bathtub. Another insists she hanged herself. Several people claim that she lost a baby and the very next day her hair went stark white. There are many theories ? or, at least, many stories. Throughout the book Nordhaus relentlessly pursues the truth. She consults historians (some who have already done research into the family), distant and elderly cousins, letters, and state records, and even makes a few trips to Germany to see what can be uncovered there. But she doesn't confine herself to material investigation: psychics are brought in as well. In one ridiculous episode, she even eats a marijuana cookie to see if it will help her commune with Julia's ghost. Alas, it only makes her anxious and sick to her stomach. There is no smoking gun, and Nordhaus acknowledges how unlikely it is that Julia is in fact an unrestful spirit. "Ghosts are not innocent until proven guilty. They are always guilty: present until proven absent. Absence of evidence, as they so often say in the world of the paranormal, is not evidence of absence. We want so badly for the dead to stay with us." But Julia did in fact lose a child maybe even more than one. She was, perhaps, "disturbed" and, according to her daughter's journals, did seek treatment for whatever ailed her. She had surgery at a clinic for women's troubles in Germany. Nordhaus assumes this may have been a hysterectomy. If the reader had hoped at the beginning of this book for the mystery of what made Julia so unhappy to be solved, he or she may be disappointed. But those with an interest in the complexities of the American West and the Jewish immigrant experience there will find the interest generated by the facts in the case outweighs the disappointments of Nordhaus's spiritual investigation. In her journey to find out what had happened to Julia, Nordhaus unearths a rather remarkable history of her entire family, with ties to the West and tragically back in Europe the Holocaust. Julia's much younger sister Emilie and her children became victims of Nazi genocide, a fact Nordhaus had never known. Emilie died at the age of eighty-one in the Theresienstadt camp. "Emilie had lived almost fifty years longer than her sister Julia . . . but she had died amid unimaginable horror: the last of her sisters, the last of her generation. Her ashes are lost . . . There's a small plaque with her name in the Jewish cemetery in Paderborn. TO DEPART IS THE FATE OF ALL PEOPLE, reads a tombstone not far from the family plot. We are all mortal of course," Nordhaus observes. "But how we depart: that makes a difference." In the beginning of the book Nordhaus writes that she was drawn to Julia's story as one of strife and suffering. But time has changed her. "I am at an age now at which death lurks more obviously and takes more readily . . . Those we love will die, the body will decline, and then we too will die. We must seize these passing moments; there may be nothing else." Nordhaus's experience seems to prove that though we may seek definitive answers to our questions about the past, the journey getting there may teach us more about ourselves. Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker 's Book Bench, NPR,The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.
Reviewer: Jessica Ferri
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.
"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
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
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.