Non­fic­tion

Amer­i­can Ghost: The True Sto­ry of a Family’s Haunt­ed Past

  • Review
By – April 17, 2015

Han­nah Nord­haus dis­cov­ers that her great-great grand­moth­er Julia is being seen in the present day as a sad-eyed ghost in a hotel that had been the fam­i­ly home in San­ta Fe, New Mex­i­co. Try­ing to learn more about Julia’s life, she inter­views rel­a­tives, then turns to diaries, his­tor­i­cal records, news­pa­per archives, psy­chics, medi­ums, and ghost hunters. The result is a spir­it­ed mem­oir of one of the ear­li­est Jew­ish pio­neer fam­i­lies in the Amer­i­can West.

After estab­lish­ing him­self as a dry goods mer­chant in San­ta Fe, Abra­ham Staub returned to the pret­ty lit­tle 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 at a dusty col­lec­tion of hov­els pre­tend­ing to be a town. There were cow­boys, Native Amer­i­cans, Con­fed­er­ate and Union sol­diers, out­laws (includ­ing two named Bil­ly the Kid”), and mis­sion­ar­ies. Span­ish was spo­ken, along with frag­ments of Eng­lish, but lit­tle German.

There is an inter­est­ing chap­ter on health care titled Region of Insan­i­ty.” After the death of her last child in infan­cy, Julia slipped into depres­sion. Since doc­tors in the Old West usu­al­ly caused more harm than good, Abra­ham often took Julia to Europe, where med­i­cine had evolved past the leech­es, emet­ics, and purges stage — but not too far: even in Europe, any­thing a woman suf­fered (except a gun­shot wound) was treat­ed with a hys­terec­to­my or rest cure.” 

In addi­tion to the fam­i­ly his­to­ry and rel­e­vant par­al­lel events, the author inter­weaves her mod­ern-day odyssey, retrac­ing Julia’s many jour­neys across the Unit­ed States and Europe — includ­ing, of course, nights spent in the haunt­ed hotel” — to cre­ate a delight­ful trav­el­ogue. Nordhaus’s smooth, almost casu­al style of writ­ing makes this book read like a nov­el. Pho­tographs, bibliography.

Relat­ed Content:

Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

Discussion Questions