So I met this guy skiing powder with some friends this winter, and I showed him my secret tree stash, which didn’t have quite enough snow, but which we all quite enjoyed until he hit a rock and destroyed his ski. But I digress: on the chairlift, we got to talking, and I told him I was a writer with a new book coming out, and he told me he was an editor at the Denver Post, and voilá: three months later, the Post, which had resisted all entreaties to read and review the book, ran a review. A true testament to the power of chairlift networking.
“This is a history book, primarily,” Greg Griffin (the guy with the broken ski) writes, “written by someone skilled in the craft. As in so many instances in ‘American Ghost,’ Nordhaus can find precious little information about Julia Staab — her great-great grandmother — from primary sources. Julia did not keep a diary and, though she became a prominent citizen of Santa Fe, newspaper coverage focused more on her husband, one of the wealthiest men in the West during his time and active in New Mexico politics.”
So Nordhaus, whose first book was ‘The Beekeeper’s Lament,’ paints a vivid picture of Julia’s life by tapping every other source she can find. Those include interviews on two continents with living family members and others whose knowledge might help Nordhaus tell the story of her enigmatic great-great grandmother, as well as research into news articles, photographs, diaries and public records related to her family history.
But this isn’t an ordinary history book, or strictly a biography. To begin with, the travails of a German Jewish housewife adjusting to Santa Fe during frontier times aren’t the stuff of typical Western lore. And for Nordhaus, the story is personal. She is drawn to Julia’s story because of the legend that has grown around her over time — her ghost is believed to haunt the downtown Santa Fe home that Abraham spent lavishly to have built for her (now the La Posada hotel), and the circumstances of her death continue to fuel speculation. 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. It’s a detailed family memoir, and Abraham and Julia aren’t the only interesting members and associates of the Staab family. It could serve as a how-to for would-be researchers of family genealogy, though most people probably don’t have such prominent ancestors to work with, not to mention ghosts. Just when you think Nordhaus has exhausted every avenue to tell Julia’s story, she takes an unexpected turn that keeps the story going.
She explores the experiences of her and Julia’s relatives who didn’t make the trip from Germany to America — many of them died in Nazi concentration camps — visits Germany and the Czech Republic, touches on the history of Jews in the American Southwest, takes a DNA test, interviews a handful of psychics, whom she treats kindly, and even takes in Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel. All the while she pursues the legend of her great-great grandmother’s ghost and learns lessons about the elusive nature of ghost stories.
It’s an ambitious combination for one book, and I wondered going in if Nordhaus could pull it off. I had doubts, too, about whether I wanted to read a book about ghosts at all. But it didn’t take long for Nordhaus to put those concerns to rest.
I wish I could have as much fun skiing with everyone who reviews my books.
Newsweek also ran a wonderful story in its most recent issue reviewing three recent nonfiction books about the American desert, and American Ghost was one of them.
Not all head into the desert in search of enlightenment; some are merely looking to make a profitable, peaceable living. Among these was Abraham Staab, a 19th century German-Jewish merchant who made his wealth in Santa Fe and was seen by some as “the Al Capone of theterritory of New Mexico,” according to his great-great-granddaughter Hannah Nordhaus, who writes about him in her new book American Ghost.
The focus of American Ghost is not Abraham, but his wife, Julia, whom he brought over in 1865 from Germany. For many years, she was his wife. Today, she is, Nordhaus writes, “Santa Fe’s most famous ghost,” haunting the graceful old Staab mansion in the center of town. You may well commune with her yourself, or at least try to: Today, that mansion is the La Posada hotel. Its website even makes a brief mention of the haunting.
Nordhaus grew up in Washington, D.C., but as she writes in this graceful and ominous family history, “We were all haunted, in one way or another, by the notion of Julia marooned in the desert, and many of us found in Julia a muse and a metaphor,” a symbol of womanhood stifled and subsumed by her husband and the place to which that husband had brought her.
When the European wife arrived in Santa Fe, it was a city “flat and uncouth,” according to one observer, a muddy assemblage of adobe buildings. Only in the desert of the New World could this credibly be called a city. “Parties often ended in gunfire,” Nordhaus writes, her language here and elsewhere crisp and evocative.
When I think of Jews in the desert, I think of Moses in the Sinai, but there were Jews in the American Southwest, too, constituting a prosperous merchant class. A cousin of Nordhaus even wrote a children’s book called Jews of the Wild West. American Ghost is a purview into a Jewish subculture no less rich, factious or historically relevant than the Pale of Settlement or the Lower East Side. “The Almighty Dollar is closer to the Jews of Santa Fe than our holy religion,” one pious critic of the time complained.
Nordhaus capably and compellingly recreates Julia’s story with the help of documents that have stayed in the family. Nevertheless, she must ultimately rely on conjecture: Did Julia have an affair with influential Catholic prelate Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who served as the first Archbishop of Santa Fe? Did she suffer from depression or some other psychic distress? Was she killed by Abraham or, as is more likely, simply languish to death in the upper floor of the Staab mansion?
Whatever the case, reports of a haunting started appearing some eight decades after her death. In 1979, the Santa Fe Reporter ran an article titled “Julie Staab Still Watches Over Her Home.” A plethora of strange occurrences suggested that Julia was hanging around Santa Fe. Near the end of the book, Nordhaus spends a night in the room where Julia lived. She reports some strange lights punctuating the darkness. Are these a message from a long-departed relative? That must remain yet another desert mystery.
And J Weekly, a San Francisco Jewish magazine, also ran a recent review of American Ghost.
Trying to learn more about Staab’s life, Nordhaus, a journalist, interviews relatives, then turns to diaries, historical records, newspaper archives, psychics and ghost hunters. The result is a spirited memoir of one of the earliest Jewish pioneer families in the West.
After establishing himself as a dry goods merchant in Santa Fe, Abraham Staub returned to the town in Germany where he was born to fetch a wife. Julia, his new bride, crossed the Atlantic on a luxury liner to New York, boarded a train and finished her trek on stagecoach to arrive in dusty Santa Fe, where she found cowboys, Indians, soldiers, outlaws, missionaries and very few Jews.
In addition to the family history and relevant events, Nordhaus interweaves her modern-day odyssey, retracing her great-great-grandmother’s many journeys across the United States and Europe, to create a delightful travelogue. The smooth, almost casual style reads like a novel.