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Should the Haunting Remain: A Review of An American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus

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My first encounter with ghosts was at the Avery House, one of Ft. Collins’ earliest and loveliest homes turned event venue and arts council office where I volunteered once a week. I’d heard a vague rumor about the Avery family ghosts but wasn’t expecting to run into them on the second floor when I was alone in the house one day. I can’t say that I saw them, only that I felt their sad presence, more sorrowful than malevolent. I wasn’t frightened but I slipped quietly back down the stairway anyway, thinking it best to leave them alone in their grief.

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My second ghostly encounter was in a Queen Anne-era bed and breakfast in Denver when I woke one night to an angry spirit hovering near the four-poster bed. Although the light, or aura, I suppose it’s called, of the ghost was bright red, somehow I knew it wasn’t there to scare me and I went easily back to sleep. Since I hadn’t felt threatened and no one had ever claimed a ghost in that house before, I didn’t mention it when I checked out the next morning. If a ghost isn’t bothering me in particular, I guess I’m willing to leave it alone.

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These experiences seem to make me less a sceptic than Hannah Nordhaus in her recent book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest. But perhaps it’s easier to believe in a former resident haunting an historic home when the ghost isn’t one’s own great-great-grandmother.

As with the best of genealogical narratives, American Ghost by award-winning journalist and historian Hannah Nordhaus is really two stories: the story being investigated and the story of the investigation itself. In American Ghost, Nordhaus researches the life of her great-great-grandmother Julia Stabb, who followed her husband Abraham to Santa Fe after their 1865 marriage in Germany. The elegant home Abraham built for Julia is today known as La Posada, a hotel believed to be haunted by Julia’s ghost.

Using family diaries, historical biographies, and government and church records, Nordhaus reveals how Julia’s life was intertwined with the early days of Santa Fe’s settlement, from city planning to religion to commerce, for the Stabbs were a leading family in Santa Fe’s history, helping establish its development from a Western outpost to an important cultural and commercial center.

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However, it’s not just Julia’s life that stands at the center of Nordhaus’ book: Julia’s death and its probable cause take Nordhaus into the realm of psychics, 19th-century “women’s cures” and charlatans, and a family history of mental illness and suicide.
This second story in American Ghost of Nordaus’s efforts to find the truth of Julia’s life and death is just as interesting as the first. Here we follow Nordhaus to some seemingly seedy places as she consults those who claim the ability to commune with Julia’s ghost. We follow Nordhaus, too, as she travels with her mother to visit her family’s burial ground in the Jewish cemetery in Lugde, Germany, and to Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi propaganda death camp where some of Nordaus’s relatives perished. Even though these events happened after Julia’s death, the weight of Nordhaus’s family history draws us further into Julia’s sorrow.DSC_0814
Like all good ghost stories, American Ghost doesn’t attempt to persuade us as to whether ghosts really exist: we can enjoy the story while still remaining a cynic. I don’t intend this review to be a spoiler, so I won’t share what Nordhaus does and does not find. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Julia died and whether Nordhaus believes in her great-great-grandmother’s ghostly presence or not. But I will share Nordhaus’s conclusion about the role ghost stories play in our early 21st-century fascination with “reality” driven narratives: “This is what I’ve come to understand about ghost stories: it’s not so much the ghost that keeps the dead alive to us as it is the story.” For Nordhaus, “intuitive and emotional truths lie at the heart of most of the stories we tell ourselves. It is the truths between the facts that tell us who we are.”

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In American Ghost, Nordhaus does provide her great-great-grandmother Julia a voice through uncovering her story, but will gaining a voice quiet Julia’s troubled spirit and set her free from haunting the La Posada hotel? That’s a question beyond Nordhaus’s book, but one connoisseurs of ghost stories should consider. In the end, don’t we want some mystery to remain, some trace of the ghostly presence to linger? After all, we may run into one ourselves someday, leaving us with our own ghost story to tell.

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Literary Foremothers

Pearlmoonplenty readers: I’m sharing here a short piece I wrote for the “Inspired Books” column of my alma mater’s library publication.  

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel . . . and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

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So spoke Jane Eyre, the fiery heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s book of the same name. Reading the novel as a young girl, I felt the injustice of Jane forced to stand on a stool in the middle of the schoolroom because she had accidentally dropped her slate.

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From the time my schoolteacher grandmother taught me to read, I was drawn to young women protagonists: Alice in Wonderland, Nancy Drew, and Jo March of Little Women were some of my favorites. When I started college at Colorado State University in 1977, I majored in microbiology but pursued the newly created Women’s Studies certificate as well. I took every women’s literature course I could, all taught by wonderful professors who were building this new program. But I thought of these courses as electives, taken more for fun than as preparation for any career.

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Following my sophomore year, I discovered Ellen Moer’s Literary Women: The Great Writers at the small library in the New England town where I was spending the summer. Akin to my Women’s Studies courses, Moer’s book examined writers like Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and George Sand as women–for their gender–rather than as members of a literary movement, regional location, or social affiliation. With the Dictionary Catalogue of Literary Women at the back of Moer’s book as my guide, I set myself a course of summer study of whatever women writers the small library offered, taking notes on yellow legal pads that I wish I still had today.

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What began as a passion became the topic of my Master’s and PhD research, followed by 24 years teaching a diversity of women’s literature courses at CU-Boulder. On the first day of class, students always asked me to choose my favorite book from the syllabus. I would tell them why I liked each of the books and, while I could never choose just one, how all the protagonists were in the mold set by Jane Eyre years ago: women speaking against injustice, defending their rights, and insisting their voices be heard.

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