A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest

By Hannah Nordhaus

Harper. 320 pp. $25.99

The ghost of Julia Staab, as detailed in Hannah Nordhaus’s part-travelogue, part-memoir “American Ghost,” has everything you would expect from a wandering Victorian spirit known to haunt the rooms of a Santa Fe hotel: the black, high-necked gown, the hair pulled elaborately on top of her head and, most important, an “aura of sadness.”

Also the author of the best-selling “Beekeeper’s Lament,” Nordhaus takes us on a journey back in time — by any means possible — in order to draw a better picture of who her great-great-grandmother was and (if the rumors are true) figure out why she insists — more than 100 years after her death — on meddling with the living residents of her old mansion, now Santa Fe’s La Posada Hotel.

HANDOUT IMAGE: "American Ghost: A Family's Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest" by Hannah Nordhaus (Harper)

The tale quickly turns dark. A few pages in, we learn that the version the author had been told — of a lively and adventurous young woman lucky enough to be plucked from Lügde, Germany, and taken to New Mexico, where she enjoyed a prosperous life with her husband — was incomplete. In fact, after birthing seven children, Staab spiraled into madness and died suddenly and mysteriously in 1896 at age 52. Some say it was suicide, while others are convinced she was murdered.

As anyone who has done any familial digging on her own can tell you, making the dead come alive through documents and oral histories can be an exceedingly difficult task. With Nordhaus as our guide, we embark on a long, exhausting journey. Unfortunately for her and us, pages and pages go nearly wasted once the author realizes that very little documented truth on her great-great-grandmother can be found. She finds diaries, to her delight, but soon faces the fact that they contain nothing significant about Staab. Psychics and ghost guides offer only vague messages from the spirit world. In the most entertaining section, the author admits to using medical marijuana in an attempt to get relaxed for the spirit world but instead goes into a manic episode. “I brushed my teeth for what seemed an eternity, then turned on my phone and pulled up a search engine,” she writes. “ ‘How long does edible marijuana last?’ Though I knew the answer already: many more hours.”

The author tries her best to mediate that feeling of hopelessness by offering details on ancestors she can find, but readers will be tempted to scan later pages, searching for the name “Julia.” She is why we’re here, after all, but her past and her death live in the space between the known and unknown.