Hannah Nordhaus had known since she was a child that her great-great-grandmother, Julia Staab, haunted La Posada, a hotel in Sante Fe, N.M., that once was Staab's home. But it wasn't until Nordhaus discovered a booklet of her family's history, written by a great-aunt, that she grew interested in finding out the truth about Staab's life.
"American Ghost: The True Story of a Family's Haunted Past," is the nonfiction account of Nordhaus' research into the life and death (and after-death) of her great-great-grandmother.
There were many stories that swirled about Staab's life: That she went insane, that she was chained to a radiator at one point, and that she was murdered by her husband or committed suicide. Since Nordhaus is not just uncovering family history, but is also researching a ghost, she combines the typical approach with the atypical: She digs through dusty archives, reads newspaper clippings and diaries, interviews family members and searches online genealogy, but she also pays multiple (skeptical) visits to psychics and eventually stays in Julia Staab's bedroom at La Posada.
Her research takes her from Santa Fe to Staab's native Germany. At times, Nordhaus fills in gaps through speculation, making educated guesses based on her extensive research of life in New Mexico during the late 1800s.
Through her journey, Nordhaus concludes that the true ghost is one's own history. (Although she does see orbs while staying in Julia's room — perhaps Julia is a ghost, after all.) Despite this personal connection, the book feels unbiased. Many of the people Nordhaus speaks with project their own lives onto Staab's, seeing an abusive husband because of their own failed marriage, for example. Such projections are natural, and acknowledging them — as the author does — is a powerful way to recognize one's own strengths and weaknesses.
"American Ghost" is beautifully written and self-aware, a memoir that tells a story and searches for broader lessons. It addresses sexism and mental illness, connection to place, motherhood and anti-Semitism (the Staabs were Jewish). It's not just a story of one woman, but the story of a family through generations.
Ultimately, "American Ghost" is not just the story of a haunting, but a story that will haunt its readers.
Ann Mayhew is the events coordinator at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis and reviews books regularly for Publishers Weekly. Her reviews have also appeared in the Rumpus and Specter Magazine.