“American Ghost, A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest” by Hannah Nordhaus. (Harper, $25.99).

Nordhaus  talks with Sharon Niederman about “American Ghost” at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW and Nordhaus will sign books at a reception at 5 p.m. Friday, March 13 at La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa, 330 East Palace Ave., Santa Fe. The reception is free but reservations are required. To make a reservation email laposadaSF@gmail.com

By David Steinberg

“American Ghost” is an intriguing, poignant book of whole fabric woven from many interlaced strands.

It is author Hannah Nordhaus’  search to understand her great-great-grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab.

It is Nordhaus’ personal investigation, with the aid of psychics, into Staab’s behavior and whether her ghost inhabited the family manse, now the main building of La Posada in Santa Fe. Nordhaus’ encounters with psychics are short interludes between longer chapters.

It is Nordhaus’ family history covering members in multiple generations. Perhaps the most fascinating family members were Julia and her wealthy merchant-husband, Abraham Staab. Both wife and husband had separate, private connections to the legendary Archbishop Lamy. Legend has it that Abraham Staab helped Lamy finance the construction of the cathedral. Less well known was that Julia Staab and Lamy spent time together planting trees and flowers on the grounds of the Staab home. She and the archbishop shared more than an interest in gardening. “There ws the love of European architecture, the conversational French. They were both often unwell. Julia’s mental and physical state was tenuous, as we know; the archbishop, too, was ‘always ill,’ according to (Paul) Horgan,” Nordhaus wrote. “There was a kinship between the archbishop and Julia – a connection.”

The book is a quick history of German-Jewish immigrants to the Southwest in the 19th century.

And that history in turn stimulates Nordhaus’ broader look at the history of the American Southwest.

“This book is so different than my last one, ‘The Beekeeper’s Lament.’ It was about a guy with 10,000 beehives. … and hauling them around the country struggling to keep them alive,” Nordhaus said in a phone interview from her home in Boulder, Colo.

“The Beekeeper’s Lament” was a PEN Center USA Book Awards finalist.

She said that writing “American Ghost” was harder for her.

“It was hard because I was so engaged in it, and I felt so connected to these people and their lives. No detail was too small for me,” Nordhaus said.

Attention to details comes from her being a historian  by training, the study of archival documents, old newspaper articles, reading my great-grandmother Bertha’s diary, hearing her voice from over 100 years ago.

Nordhaus’ research and writing produce an enriching experience for any reader anywhere, but especially for those of us who live in New Mexico.

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