Despite having grown up on Stephen King movies, Friday the 13th, and books like Haunted Ohio, I am not one for ghost stories these days. Nor would I be tempted to pick up a book with “ghost” in the title. It’s just not me. Yet, I took a chance (read as: I really needed something to read and wasn’t sure what I “felt” like reading) and picked up Hannah Nordhaus’ American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, and I am so glad I didn’t miss out!
American Ghost is not simply a ghost story to make you feel creeped out or spooked. In fact, it is so much more than anything that I would call “simple”, or even term as a “ghost story”. Instead, it is an amazing feat of family history and genealogical research. Nordhaus has done an excellent job in hunting down her family history across two continents and making a great telling of it. She finds a few great rabbit trails and threads which lead to additional historic gems that add sparkle to her own family telling. She digs and scrapes and imagines just a bit in order to create a full picture of her ancestors and to work out a more solid picture of who they were and what stories of them may or may not hold truth.
Nordhaus also does a wonderful job of keeping her readers mindful of the world happenings that touch the lives of her ancestors. We are not separated from world events, and our ancestors were not as isolated as we may think either. But what sparked this adventure to unlock the secrets of her family’s past? Well, that is where the “Ghost” of the title comes into play.
Julia Staab lived from 1844-1896. She is said to haunt the hotel La Posada in Sante Fe, New Mexico, which was originally a home built for her by her husband, as a Victorian lady with stark white hair and a sad expression. Why is she sad? Why is her hair white if she died at only 52 years old? And why, if we are going to follow the whole “ghost” or “trapped soul” idea, is she still there haunting her house nearly 120 years after her death? How did she die, really? There are many rumors to answer these questions, but which rumors are closest to the truth? This is what sparked Nordhaus’s search and the writing of American Ghost.
Nordhaus used many means of research for American Ghost, including internet searches, interviews with family members as close to Julia and her generation as possible, a personal diary of Nordhaus’ great grandmother Bertha (Julia’s youngest daughter), and foot work across Germany tracing the family’s German roots and travels. Nordhaus discovered the places Julia and her family sought out for rest and healing, aspects to the plight of German Jews, when, how and why some traveled to others countries, even following stories as far as the concentration camps. There were also a few psychic adviser adventures, some that Nordhaus found more probable and profitable than others… and there was a cookie. A very special cookie. She lives in Colorado. Such cookies are legal there.
While reading American Ghost, I was very impressed by the extensive research that Nordhaus put into it. I also greatly enjoyed the history that poured from the pages as she described the world in which her ancestors walked, their cultural habits, manners and mindsets and what happenings around them effected these personal characteristics. Nordhaus has that writing talent of a personal voice that moves her readers to settle in for a good chat. All of it worked together to produce a very well done book, even if I still don’t believe in ghosts and psychics.
Alyssa Katanic is a wife and homeschooling mother of 7 children under 11 years old. She loves reading and collecting great books to share with others and knows that one can never have too many!
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by HarperCollins Publishers. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.