If you’re an author with a family ghost, it would seem almost obligatory to write about it. Hannah Nordhaus’ “paternal grandfather’s maternal grandmother,” Julia Staab, haunts La Posada hotel in Santa Fe (or so lots of people believe). In American Ghost, Nordhaus offers a fascinating and nuanced account of her ancestral ghost story and her complicated clan.
The Staabs, German Jews by birth, were among the first American merchants in Santa Fe. Julia married the already successful Abraham in 1865; she died in the house at the age of 52. Seven children survived her.
The ghost story goes like this: Julia never recovered from a baby’s death; her husband abused her; she died violently, perhaps by Abraham’s hand; and she now haunts her old bedroom. Nordhaus establishes that this is romantic fiction, though she remains respectful of those who believe they’ve encountered the ghost.
The Staabs were wealthy businesspeople, but they were also dysfunctional. Nordhaus unearths depression, addiction, suicide and estrangement. She writes of her ancestors’ travails with perception and compassion. Along the way, she employs family history to explore the lives of German Jews (Julia’s much younger sister died at Theresienstadt), the renaissance of Santa Fe and changing attitudes toward illness. It’s a spirited ride.
Perhaps most entertaining are her present-day encounters with psychics, ghost hunters and spiritualists, all eager to help. Her quest culminates in a weird experience in Julia’s room, make of it what you will. She does eventually discover whatever we can now know of the “truth” of Julia’s life, but inevitably, Nordhaus’ journey really is a search for self, and we are privileged to be able to accompany her.