Not everyone gets to have a famous ghost in their ancestry. But Hannah Nordhaus does: her great-great-grandmother Julia Staab is said to haunt her former home in Santa Fe, now a hotel called La Posada. There are all kinds of legends about Julia--she went mad, her husband murdered her, she killed herself. Nordhaus became interested in these legends and the stories of the haunting--because who wouldn't???--and decided to investigate a bit further, which led to her book, American Ghost.
Being in kind of a ghosty mood this summer, I was excited to read this. So there was some initial disappointment as I got deeper into the book and realized the ghost story was only going to be a small part of the overall tale. But even as I was slightly disappointed, I was being drawn in to the other parts of the story, which include: the taming of the American West in the mid- to late-1800s; the world of immigrant German Jews in New Mexico; the Staab family's connection to the famous Archbishop Lamy; explorations into the family's past in Germany (and, for more unfortunate family members who stayed, what their future would look like when the Nazis came to power); family dynamics in a group led by a steely, wily, successful, possibly egotistic patriarch; the roles of women in that family; and what mental illness looked like then, particularly in how it was treated.
So, yes, I might have liked more ghost. But the way all these factors circle in around the ghost story turned out to be fascinating. Nordhaus did tons of research, by both reputable fashion (newspaper accounts, historians) and by less-reputable fashion (psychics, mediums, dowsers, ghost hunters). In the end, she knows somewhat more about Julia Staab than she did when she started, but not enough to conclusively solve the mystery of who she was and how she ended up as she did, or even how she died--natural causes? Suicide?
And is there really a ghost? As Nordhaus points out: "This is how it is in ghost hunting: ghosts are present until proven absent. Absence of evidence, as they so often say in the world of the paranormal, is not evidence of absence. We so badly want the dead to stay with us."
So, if you're looking for a full-on ghost story, this isn't it. But if you're interested in history, especially family history and how myths and legends evolve around that history, or you're interested in how the west was won by German Jews, well--this one's for you.