I thought I’d start my October reviews with some kind of Halloween-themed book, but didn’t want to do full-on horror. This book seemed like a good fit for our purposes. There is a well-known ghost in a Santa Fe mansion-turned-hotel, a woman in Victorian dress who sometimes speaks with a German accent, and sightings of her have been documented since the 1970s. And this ghost is the author’s great-grandmother, Julia.
I didn’t think I believed in Julia’s ghost, but she was nonetheless starting to haunt me.
American Ghost is a memoir of the author’s journey to learn more about her great-grandmother Julia, and hopefully even the reason behind why she’s supposedly haunting her former house. Don’t be put off too much by the ghost factor — at it’s core, this is a book about family history, and even though I am not related to German Jews who settled the Southwest, I found the story the author uncovers quite compelling, and my history major self very much enjoyed learning about how she found her information and the different places it led her. I’m sure some readers may be drawn more to the paranormal aspects of the story, and it does give variety of the narrative to jump from 1870’s Santa Fe to modern-day ghost hunting.
Being a trained journalist and a skeptic, Nordhaus isn’t really all that convinced about the ghost of her ancestor, but visits with various spiritualists and mediums to allow them to help her fill in the cracks of Julia’s story. I’m not one to totally discredit experiences people have had with those beyond the veil. Some people are able to have that gift and it deserves some reverence. But I think most of us would roll our eyes at some of these mediums. The focus is not on trying to get the ghost of Julia to reveal herself, but on getting Julia’s story revealed through actual hardcore research.
Nordhaus goes to primary sources and hobby genealogists also fascinated by Julia’s story to try and verify family stories about her great-grandmother Julia that have been passed down in her family, which are varied and dramatic. Following marriage at a young age in Germany, Julia arrives in Santa Fe after rigorous travel (the railroad wasn’t completed yet), surrounded by English and Spanish speakers when she speaks neither. Her husband works hard to build a successful business, and she bears a number of children. Julia even develops a friendship (or more?) with the local Catholic archbishop, who in reality was the basis for Willa Cather’s title character of Death Comes For the Archbishop. But was her husband, who some later called “the Al Capone of the territory of New Mexico,” abusive? Did she go insane? What unfinished business does she have that allowed her to become a ghost?
Nordhaus dives into Julia’s family, learning what happened to her siblings and other relations, her children and her husband, and how the territory of New Mexico was settled and developed, hoping to find clues that will help her figure out Julia as a person, what happened to her, and if there is truth behind the tragic family stories. If you’re a person who binge-watches Who Do You Think You Are?, enjoys indexing, has an interest in the late Victorian period, and/or doesn’t mind a good ghost story, you may want to check out this book for a good armchair adventure.