American Ghost (2015) sounds like a ghost story based on its title, but it’s not. It’s a memoir tracing the author’s family history, starting with an ancestor rumored to be haunting a Santa Fe hotel. To justify the title, the author, Hannah Nordhaus, alternates standard genealogical research methods with less conventional ones, “exploring [her] Victorian ghost in the company of modern ghost hunters: mediums and psychics, tarot card readers and dowsers and intuitives.”
The chapters on these unconventional methods are fine, but I prefer the drier history-based portions of the book that follow the experiences of Nordhaus’s German Jewish family in the American Southwest and Germany in the 19th and 20th Centuries. This is one family’s story, but it fits into a wider historical framework that includes the family histories of many of us. As a result, this genealogical tale has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than Nordhaus’s relatives.
Julia Staab, Nordhaus’s paternal grandfather’s maternal grandmother (a.k.a. great-great grandmother), arrived in the United States from Germany in 1866 as the wife of Abraham, a wealthy dry goods merchant who made his fortune on the Santa Fe trail. Julia traveled the trail by stagecoach, and Nordhaus sees the experience from her ancestor’s perspective.
When describing the “challenges” Julia faced on the trail, Nordhaus writes:
Natives were also a problem for European settlers. Julia’s journey took place during the height of the Indian Wars; the plans were dangerous. After the Civil War, the Indians had stepped up their campaigns against travelers through their territory–emigrants were streaming west and the tribes knew that they would bring only trouble… The Comanche and the Kiowa were feared above all… The winter that Julia traveled the trial, six soldiers were scalped…
Nordhaus admits that the European settlers “would bring only trouble” for the tribes. However, her description of the events is from the settlers’ perspective, and she relies on the journal of a European nun who also traveled the trail (but not with Julia) to describe an incident when “the Kiowas’ death whoop preceded the sling of hundreds of arrows.”
After this conflict, from which the settlers escaped by distracting the Kiowas with a barrel of whisky, Nordhaus concludes: “This is the path Julia traveled.”
Nordhaus’s one-sided portrayal of the travelers’ conflict with the Comanche and the Kiowa to evoke sympathy for her ancestor is unsettling. Her ancestor, like many of our ancestors, was an invader, and modern authors need to be careful when describing these historical events. Nordhaus’s ancestors may have viewed the conflict with the tribes from a European settler perspective, but she shouldn’t view it that way too (even in a milder way).
Nordhaus’s tendency to view the past through her ancestors’ eyes also resulted in a series of unsettling descriptions of one of Julia’s children. Her son Paul, born in 1872, had severe epilepsy, a medical condition that has been historically stigmatized. Nordhaus writes, “What sadness [their son’s medical condition] must have brought Julia and Abraham when they came to understand his infirmity.”
Yeah, I get that, but it doesn’t excuse the author’s pejorative references to Paul’s condition throughout the book:
- “[Julia] still had six healthy children–seven including the disabled Paul–while many mothers of the era saw few infants grow to adulthood.”
- “Their family was, by all appearances, thriving. The children–Paul excepted–were healthy.”
- “Paul, the invalid”
- “There was Paul, nervous debility made flesh.”
What does that last one even mean? It would have been better to refer to Paul by his name without repeatedly referencing his medical condition.
Apart from these flaws, Nordhaus’s book is an interesting portrayal of 19th and 20th century events as her ancestors lived them. I only wish she hadn’t fallen into the trap of subtly promoting their antiquated perspectives.
**The image is a portion of the cover of American Ghost: A Family’s Extraordinary History on the Desert Frontier