Tag Archives: Santa Fe

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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Taos Portrait Found

I’ve been looking for this picture for years. I knew that I had stuck it in a book at some point in my various moves, but I didn’t know which book, although I’d searched through many. The picture was taken in Taos and I knew the book had something to do with that region, so occasionally I’d think I’d remembered the title and searched through the pages of that book. For fifteen years, I hadn’t been right.

And then, when I wasn’t looking for this photo at all, I found it, tucked not inside a book but between two books by Linda Hogan, one of my favorite authors. Recently I’ve been purging my book collection to make room on my shelves for books brought home from my office and for artifacts I’d like to look at from time to time. I was rearranging books by Native American authors when I picked up Hogan’s Dwellings, a book I use in teaching, to place it with Hogan’s other works on the shelf—and there was the envelope between two of her novels. I knew immediately that the picture was there, even though I had forgotten that I’d put it in the envelope at all with others from that trip.

It’s not surprising to me now that the picture was with Hogan’s works. Not only is she a favorite author of mine—I’ve taught her novel Solar Storms in my coming-of-age in women’s lit course for years—but she even writes about losing and finding objects in an essay in Dwellings called “The Feathers.” Here she details discovering that her granddaughter’s umbilical cord was missing from the black pot where it was kept. She searched her entire house, looking several times in a cedar box where she kept other important items, but the cord wasn’t there. After performing a ceremony to call the cord back, she returned to look again in the box, only to find that the feather she kept there was now missing too. Getting down on her hands and knees to look for the feather, she found it pointing toward the umbilical cord on the floor she had already searched.

So here’s the picture, found again, of me in 1996 standing in my blanket coat in front of the adobe church in the Old Taos plaza. Over the last fifteen years, I had remembered the picture differently: in my remembered picture, I could see the colors of the coat (navy, purple, and tan) as my body cast a long shadow across the adobe, and the look on my face wasn’t so severe. I had made the picture in my mind more vivid and stylized than the picture actually was. Call it the O’Keefe effect.

Even though the photograph doesn’t quite live up to my memory of it, I still like this picture of me. This was my first—and for now, only—trip to Taos and Santa Fe, and I loved the area, especially the church I’m standing against. I had never been that close to something that old, that sacred, built out of the earth itself as if it had grown there from the very mud of which it was created. I felt—as the picture depicts—very small standing against the back of the church but safe at the same time, perhaps because the wall seemed so solid and so warm on that early spring day. I’m not casting a shadow because, in the photo, I am the shadow, the only darkness against the light of the adobe, absorbing rather than reflecting the power of that place. I imagined why artists like O’Keefe had been so drawn to the Southwest—the textures, the heat, and the severity of light that draws our eyes to the shadows in relief like the pattern of a Hopi design.

When this picture was taken, I was just starting my career at the university and was about to buy the home where I would raise my daughter. I wasn’t young, but I was starting out once again on a new phase of my life. Now, fifteen years later, that career is finished, my daughter is raised, the home sold, and I’m once again facing new and exciting changes in my life.

This picture reminds me that we sometimes find ourselves in unexpected places that we don’t even realize we’ll remember years hence. Sometimes our days seem so settled, so sedentary or even senseless, that only looking back across our lives tracks how far we’ve come. Perhaps I’ve searched for this picture from time to time because I needed that reminder. Perhaps I’ve found it now because I’m ready for another change.

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