Christopher Bartley – “They Die Alone”

They Die AloneAre you a gangster if you don’t belong to a gang?

Ross Duncan moves in the gangster world, knows the gangster ways and is all too familiar with the gangster’s needs, but he works in a kind of twilight zone of uncertainty. He’s a loner. He’s not a joiner. He’d rather not commit.

Ross Duncan has a conscience, a sort-of moral compass. He has limits. They are his to know and for you to find out. He’s a tough guy but there are some soft spots, too.

In setting up Duncan’s world, Christopher Bartley embraces the grim, edgy vibe of noir. Darkness, shadows, whiskey, cigarettes, dames, rain, clouds, Tommy guns. Scores to settle. Gangsters talk about murder and mayhem in pleasantries, like innocents. Bad guys get what they have coming. Nobody says “you dirty little rat,” but almost.

Bartley hugs the tropes, plays with them.

“Sleep had evaded me again, and then I dreamed I was dreaming and in that dream I lay awake in bed, glittering riches, and quiet stolen moments sifted through that dream of a dream.”

“She wore pearls around her neck and clinging silk dress the color gin forms when you add a squeeze of grapefruit juice…”

“We sat together like that for a very long time listening to the rain beat steadily against the window. Ten minutes went by and then fifteen, twenty … The rain continued its rhythmic tattoo and still we did not speak. It was a comfortable silence.”

We’re in 1930’s Chicago and They Die Alone leads Ross Duncan to a crossroads. He’s hired for a hit, but it’s more complicated than that. That is, deftly complicated. Not hard-to-follow complicated. Two rival gangs (one Irish, one Italian) each think they have their hooks into Duncan but, well, Duncan has his own plans based on his own code. (It’s a very clever play.)

Like many complex characters, Duncan has a past and some of the most evocative writing in They Die Alone is contained in flashbacks about a former partner and also in the re-telling of a bank robbery spree that goes awry.

Duncan strikes up a friendly relationship with a woman who rents him a room—and her son and their cat. He falls in love with a cool woman who once belonged to his former partner. She’s addicted to laudanum and he’s here to coax her back from the brink of self-destruction. Duncan learns from his lessons, hones his awareness for the “fine moral distinction” that weighs on his soul.

“Shades matter,” he insists.

Yes, it’s an ugly business. Yes, They Die Alone is marked by rough violence (and ample references to the mayhem caused by the real criminals and real crime-fighters of the day). But the focus is squarely on Duncan and the human consequences of struggling to stay alive when you’re playing a hideous game and looking—or maybe not—for a place to belong.

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Christopher Bartley

On Twitter: @christobartley (And if you follow him, you will receive a regular dose of vintage pics of Hollywood stars. He’s a solid curator.)

Q & A #26 Ausma Zehanat Khan – “The Unquiet Dead”

Unquiet DeadA couple weeks after finishing The Unquiet Dead, a slow-burn and well-executed mystery that uses the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica as its plot seed, I opened the newspaper to read that war crimes prosecutors were moving to arrest direct participants in what National Public Radio called “Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.”

I had learned so much from reading The Unquiet Dead that I felt sort of up-to-speed about the lingering issues and international political clouds around the slaughter. But rest assured that Ausma Zehanat Khan knows the difference between a lecture and a mystery novel—The Unquiet Dead is built as a quiet, in-control thriller first, lesson in “don’t forget” second.

The crimes, in fact, were horrible. Are horrible. How the world dealt with them at the time is fairly hard to fathom given all the other situations that have prompted “action” and “engagement” by world superpowers.

I won’t get into the details here other than to suggest grabbing a copy of The Unquiet Dead, for the interesting pair of investigators Khan created, the well-layered story and the gripping history lesson.

First, Ausma Zehanat Khan was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book. A review follows. By the way, The Los Angeles Times (“superb”) and The Washington Post (“impressive”) have all raved as well. The Denver Post, too (“outstanding”) and Library Journal, Kirkus and many others.

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Question: Let’s start with the obvious—how did you come across this idea and/or what’s your connection to all the events surrounding the horrors of Srebrenica?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: My Ph.D. dissertation was on the fall of Srebrenica, so for many years I was intimately acquainted with the horrors that occurred during the Bosnian war. I had met refugees, read war crimes testimony, survivor testimony, UN reports – so those voices were speaking to me powerfully over the years. I had always wanted to write about the fall of Srebrenica, and this seemed like a way to tackle the subject that was perhaps not as head-on, and also allowed for my detective Esa Khattak’s unique point of entry into the case.
Question: Were you surprised at how this particular event was overlooked or overshadowed at the time?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: At the time, the siege and the fall of Srebrenica received significant news coverage. What I wasn’t expecting was that we would witness this slow-motion genocide on our television screens while the international community stood by. The intervention in Bosnia was a failure roundly admitted by the United Nations now, but it was deeply disturbing to witness the equivocating at the Security Council, and the refusal to act to prevent the crime of genocide at the time. When we look at the humanitarian crisis in Syria today, we see that none of the lessons of the war in Bosnia were learned.

Question: Do you think the Bosnian ideas and ideals of pluralism can ever be achieved? Seems like more and more of a fantasy, does it not, given what’s happening in the Middle East?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: We do see it in many countries today—and not just in the West, but also in places that are ethnically and religiously mixed like Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Turkey to some degree. The question is whether we value pluralism, multiculturalism, and believe that the citizens of any nation should have the equal protection and benefit of the law, with equal standing under the law. When you look at the best of what humanity is capable of, you can’t help but think it’s possible. My hometown of Toronto is a wonderful example of this. But like the history of the wars of religion in the West, the convulsions we see in the Middle East will be the struggles of decades, as people search for a way to realize their democratic aspirations, and their aspirations for fundamental human rights. I choose to remain optimistic.
Question: Almost don’t want to know the answer, were war criminals from that atrocity able to flee to other countries, take up new identities?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes. There was a story published recently in the New York Times that the State Department is set to deport some 150 Bosnian Serb fugitives from the United States, where they were able to flee their crimes in Bosnia, and find safety here. Many of them are suspected of participating in the Srebrenica massacre.

Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan

Question: I’ve got to say that your character descriptions are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Care to share your approach? Give us a lesson?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Thank you so much, that’s so kind! I try to write the kinds of characters that I enjoy reading—characters with conflict in their past, emotional turmoil, but a determination to rise above and try to choose the right course in their lives. They can be short-sighted or flawed in other ways, but they have a sense of moral purpose—at least as far as my detectives are concerned, and a sense of compassion for others whose lives suffer from more wreckage.

Question: Care to tell us about your path to publication? Was this a manuscript you’d been working on for some time?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes, The Unquiet Dead has been in my consciousness for years. The research took me a full year of concentrated effort, apart from my graduate studies, and the writing another year still. Then I submitted the manuscript to the Minotaur Books First Crime Novel competition and was lucky enough to catch the eye of a very talented editor, who helped me shape the book into what it would eventually become. A fairytale ending for a first novel!

Question: What’s next for your writing and what’s next for your two main characters?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I’ve written the next book in the series featuring Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty—they investigate the murder of a young man in the woods of Algonquin Park, a murder that appears to be linked to a terrorism plot, but in ways that I hope will subvert readers’ expectations of this kind of story. And I’ve been working on the manuscript of a fantasy novel, a genre I’ve always loved—a kind of historical fantasy meets alternate future, so we’ll see how that one goes, but I hope to write many more Khattak/Getty novels because I have so many more stories I’d love to tell.

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Review:

One of the best things about the mystery genre is the unlimited variety of topics and issues available and Ausma Zehanat Khan mines the tragedy Srebrenica in 1995 for the The Unquiet Dead, an intriguing and smart story with plenty of complex layers.

The story is good but might have just stayed on the page as a ho-hum mystery without the fictional creation of Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Khattak is head of Toronto’s Community Policing Section. Getty is a sergeant in the same unit. They aren’t traditional detectives—their small team (it’s just the two of them) is designed to handle sensitive cases that involve minorities. Khattak, however, is a second-generation Canadian. And he’s Muslim. Getty is the more native Canadian; her father was a cop and Getty has issues with both her father and a missing brother.

There’s been a death—a body has been found at the base of a cliff and it’s a businessman who lives nearby. His name is Christopher Drayton. It doesn’t take Khattak too long to find out that Drayton was an alias for Drazen Krstic, a war criminal known for his involvement in the horrific events in Srebrenica, where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. Confirming the identity takes time but it’s good, methodical, grounded police work.

The Unquiet Dead moves forward in three ways. First, as an ever-widening group of suspects is identified. There’s a fiancée, the fiancée’s daughters, the fiancée’s ex-husband, the curator of a museum and others. Second, through the exchanges between Khattak and Getty. Both are loaded with interesting attitudes and opinions—frequently about each other—and both have their own emotional layers and complications. (Khattak is particularly fascinating, a solid character who demonstrates how to not wear religion on your sleeve.) And finally, the story proceeds through flashbacks from the scenes in Srebrenica, drawn from eyewitness testimony. That might sound heavy-handed, but it’s not.

Together and separately, Khattak and Getty pursue the many leads and slowly realize that they are probing around in a thicket that is much more tangled than they first realized. Much of The Unquiet Dead is thoughtful, probing conversation. By the end, the list of themes rippling through the plot is impressive—culture, religion, family for starters. The plot is built for the brain, not necessarily for producing chills up your spine. The Unquiet Dead started with a great concept and offers a solid mystery, well-delivered.

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Links:
http://www.facebook.com/ausmazehanatkhan
http://www.amazon.com/author/ausmazehanatkhan
https://www.goodreads.com/ausmazehanatkhan

Sarah Waters – “The Paying Guests”

The Paying GuestsI found this book (and writer) through listening to Michael Silverblatt’s terrific podcast, Bookworm (KCRW). I read The Paying Guests as an audiobook (a delectable narration by Juliet Stevenson) on a long trip and the drive went quickly, although there was still plenty of novel left to devour after the trip was over. It’s a long one.

The Paying Guests pulled me along by that distinctive psychological undertow that I think of as Patricia Highsmith-esque. I wasn’t surprised to find, after doing a bit of poking around online, that Waters cites Highsmith as one of her favorite writers.

Highsmith puts a reader in a character’s skin like few others. Waters is every bit her match. The writing is tactile, visceral, gritty, sensual (all six senses). The plot is simple: a widowed mother and her daughter take on a young couple as borders in post-World War I London. The story is told by Frances, the daughter. The mother-daughter couple are giving up her mother’s bedroom to Leonard and Lillian Barber to boost the household income. The war has taken its toll on those who survive, too. Frances and her mother live in Champion Hill, a couple miles from the “glamour” of London but thank god not “grubby” Camberwell, either. Class plays a big role in the entire story.

The closeness of a married couple living side-by-side, floor-over-floor with the mother-daughter couple is palpable. Sounds, utterances, new rhythms, new strains. The first two hundred pages explore their mutual awkwardness and discomfort—and attempts to get along as well. There’s a haircut, a picnic, odd moments, lurching, concealing, dodging. Waters slowly peels back Frances’ story and we soon realize that Frances yearns for Lillian and that Frances’ mother is very well aware of her daughter’s preferences—and intends to keep her in check (or try).

And then, of course, the suspense-mystery. The trope is that mysteries require the dead body to appear in the first few pages or maybe the first chapter (depends on who is teaching your class in clichés) but in The Paying Guests it’s as if a historical novel morphs into a romance and then a straight-up suspense thriller with inspectors and barristers and witnesses and again, like Highsmith, we are in the mind of the perpetrator and see the actions of her co-conspirator, to the extend we can. The mystery elements don’t really kick in until about half way through this hefty ride, but all three parts hang together. There’s a seamless flow to the emotions and the details, with Waters in complete control as we watch Frances and the escalating anguish. And terror.

The Paying Guests is a mash-up—and Waters concedes that point. In the same interview where she acknowledged her debt to Highsmith (The Boswellians, a blog from a fabulous independent bookstore in Milwaukee) Waters said she took the approach on purpose: “One thing that struck me about the period was what a mish-mash of voices it was. The 1940s, for example, has always seemed to me to have a very distinctive idiom; but the ’20s was much more diverse. So I just read all sorts of literature from the period—novels, plays, poetry, letters, diaries; highbrow, middlebrow and potboilers—and let all seep in.”

It seeps in all right – right under your skin.

James Nestor – “Deep”

DeepI first heard James Nestor on the podcast “Authors on Tour” (a great podcast, by the way) as he was giving an enthusiastic presentation at the Tattered Cover. I had a hunch I would dig Deep. I wasn’t disappointed.

Deep is fascinating from first drop to last. The essential premise is this: there is still a mountain to learn about the ocean. “Two million years of human history, two thousand years of science experiments, a few hundred years of deep-sea adventuring, one hundred thousand marine biology graduate students, countless PBS specials, Shark Week, and still, still, we’ve explored only a fraction of the ocean,” Nestor writes.

Nestor hangs out in Aquarius, the world’s only underwater habitat off Key Largo. He attends a sport that is unwatchable—competitive freediving—off Kalamata, Greece. (It’s unwatchable because only the first few seconds and last few seconds of each dive are visible.) He watches a team studying man-eating sharks off the remote island of Réunion. He talks to researchers who study echolocation. He rides down in a cold and claustrophobic sub to 2,400 feet below sea level off Belize. He learns to tackle his own fear of freediving. He gets into the details of what scientists are finding at depths that were long presumed to have nothing to offer—“chemosynthetic” life and the action around hydrothermal vents in the “hadal.”

The idea for the book started with an article he wrote about freediving—and that peculiar sport weaves throughout Deep as a recurring issue. Nestor demonstrates how our understanding of what happens to the human body at depth has grown considerably in the past fifty years and he makes a convincing case that we are adaptable to deep water, even if the transformation during a solo freedive in the scary-deep (say, 300 feet) involves nitrogen narcosis, hallucinations and high risk of blacking out. The human body’s “Master Switch,” writes Nestor, knows how to manage a host of issues, most of them brought on by the tremendous pressure of all that water trying to crush your body. There’s ample evidence that key functions are prioritized even if it means your heart rate slows to seven beats per minute.

Deep looks at the latest science with echolocation and “click” communication and Nestor makes a convincing case that dryland-conditioned humans have the ability, if we would only train ourselves, to develop an ability to “see” and “listen” in other ways than we normally think. Deep fully admits in its subtitle that the scientists being profiled are “renegades” but if they are outsiders or outside-the-box thinkers that’s fine with me—what’s wrong with passionate, zealous scientists on a quest?

Ultimately, Deep is about our relationship with the ocean—how we are managing it, nurturing it, exploring it, understanding it, treating it. The answer to understanding ourselves, Nestor suggests, may lie in a full understanding of the oceans and the creatures that live there. Nestor’s case is convincing.

Q & A #25 Hannah Nordhaus – “American Ghost”

AmericanGhost_finalcoverHannah Nordhaus was last here in May of 2012 in a Q & A about The Beekeeper’s Lament, a PEN Center USA Book Awards finalist, a Colorado Book Awards finalist, an Indie Next Pick and on and on.

I’m thrilled to have her back, on publication day, for American Ghost: The True Story of a Family’s Haunted Past, her account of her probe into the life of her great-great-grandmother.

In Nordhaus’ hands, American Ghost is a sweeping tale sprinkled with elusive bits of uncertainty. As she did with Beekeeper’s Lament, however, the reporting and the final account are riveted to the facts.

A full review follows. First, Hannah was kind enough to answer some questions about the book and how she approached the reporting:

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Question: The Beekeeper’s Lament probed a world with mystery and puzzles, but the narrative stayed close to scientific analysis and the people working to understand bee colonies and how they function. American Ghost makes no bones about venturing into a more mystical topic but the story relies on the facts of Julia Staab’s life and the facts of the world she inhabited. Did you feel a need to adjust any of your own pre-conceived ideas about the mystical aspects in order to start work on this project and dive into the reporting?

Hannah Nordhaus: Being a science journalist, and being a generally empirical person, I had to suspend a whole lot of disbelief to embark on this project. When I started working on American Ghost, I had it in my head that the ghost/psychic/dowser/ghost-hunter stuff would be comic relief. The story of Julia Staab was a fairly grim one, and I thought a little ghost-hunting levity would be a nice break from the sadness of Julia’s story.

But it’s hard to spend hours with people who really care about what they are doing and continue to think of them as mere jokes. The psychics I met truly believed that they were talking to Julia’s spirit, and I had no sense at all that they were hucksters just telling me what I wanted to hear. There was a sincerity there. Who was I to question them?

As my visits to the spiritualists progressed, I also began to realize that these encounters added a quotient of real human feeling to my search, and that this was quite helpful. Often, I was able to trace Julia’s story only through the stories of others: her husband Abraham, her children, and other people whose better-documented lives intersected hers. What the psychics did was to provide me with a means of connecting to Julia herself—if not to her actual spirit, then at least to an idea of her. They told me that she liked flowers; that she had once loved another man; that her children were the world to her; that she rocked back and forth in a rocking chair and brushed her white hair and paced the floor and wrung her hands. To them, she was a woman with a story of her own. For all the unreality of sitting in a room talking to strangers who were themselves talking to spirits who resided in the air, my meetings with the psychics made Julia feel somehow more real to me.

Hannah Nordhaus

Hannah Nordhaus

Question: Are you drawn to stories with an underlying theme of uncertainty and the unknown?

Hannah Nordhaus: I am drawn to the hidden and the odd. Both The Beekeeper’s Lament and American Ghost are about strange and unknown worlds—places and stories that we wouldn’t otherwise know much about. Who knew that there are generations of men who haul bees around the country to make a living? Who knew that there are underworld “honey laundering” operations that sell illicit honey?

And who, also, knew that the American Southwest was settled with the help of an inbred cadre of Jewish merchants, and that they shipped in their wives from Germany, and that, if these wives proved unhappy, their doctors treated their emotional problems with hysterectomies and the “water cure,” which included the consumption of sixty glasses of water a day. Or that Jewish men were fined, in 17th-century Germany, for beating their wives on Sundays. Or that the iconic newspaperman Horace Greeley held regular séances. I learned so many insanely weird things while researching this book. Which is why I do what I do—I love the obscure.

Question: Do you “believe” more or less since writing this book? Are ghosts a matter of belief?

Hannah Nordhaus: I would like to believe in ghosts. I love the idea of them, and how they connect us to the past. I love the stories! Since writing this book, friends and readers have told me about all sorts of unsettling encounters. Every single one gives me goosebumps. One woman emailed me recently to tell me about a spirit—or so she believes—that creates lines a line of paperclips parallel to her office door every single night. These stories are just phenomenal, and I want so badly to believe them.

But I also understand that belief of this sort is incredibly subjective. No one is going to believe these stories unless they are inclined to do so. I had an experience in Julia’s room—it happens towards the end of the book, and I don’t want to divulge too much. But I will say that it took place around 5 am, and that I was half asleep, and that I have no idea whether it really happened, or whether I was still dreaming or in a “hypnopompic” state, or if I just wanted it to happen so badly that I let myself believe it did. I’m a very just-the-facts kind of person, generally. So it’s hard for me to just up and say, “I believe!” But I’ve heard so many odd stories from so many people who are in every other way completely believable, that I guess—yes, why not believe? What’s the point of not believing?

Question: Did you know when you started all the places you’d end up? Did you even have a rough idea of the threads you would follow?

Hannah Nordhaus: I knew I would be learning a lot of southwestern history, and I knew that I would be learning a lot about 19th century séances and mediums, but that was about the extent of my certainty as to where my research would lead me. I had no idea that I would learn so much about my family in the New Mexico newspapers from their era, or that I’d find my great-grandmother Bertha’s diary and follow it through the fin-de-siècle German spas that she visited with Julia. Nor did I have a clue that I’d get into the nuances of 19th century gynecology, or that I would suddenly leap forward 50 years in time to tell the story of Julia’s youngest sister Emilie, who was born sixteen years later than Julia, and was unfortunate enough to live so long that she died in a Nazi concentration camp. I kept stumbling across these stories and following them where they took me.

But I imagine, if you dug into the archives of every family, you’d find similarly diverse and outrageous threads. Every family, every old building, every gravestone, every street, contains a history that spans generations and continents. Though perhaps not every family has a famous ghost in its family tree.

Question: The life and times of Julia Schuster Staab, and her offspring, would have been extraordinary even without the ghost sightings. Do you agree? Do you think you would have been compelled to write this had there been no ghost?

Julia and Abraham Staab, early in their marriage

Julia and Abraham Staab, early in their marriage

Hannah Nordhaus: I have always been interested in my family history and in Southwestern history, ghost or no ghost. And perhaps I would have written about the family, ghost or no ghost—I went to grad school, after all, to study Western history. But the fact is, my great-great-grandmother is a famous ghost, and I simply don’t know how I could have gone about telling the story of her life without contending with the story of her ghost. It is the reason people care about her. Without the ghost story, she would be long forgotten.

There were certainly days—weeks—when I wished that Julia wasn’t a famous ghost. Because while the ghost aspect is in many ways the main “hook” of Julia’s story, it made this a much harder book to write. I am a historian by training, addicted to facts, and it was really, really difficult for me to jump off from that place of evidentiary comfort and explore the world of spirits and belief. It’s very out of character for me, and it wasn’t easy for me to toggle back and forth between history and myth.

Question: Did all this research into your own family history alter the way you view your own family’s situation today? Do you play the “what if” game from events that happened decades ago?

Hannah Nordhaus: Definitely. I had no idea, when I started researching American Ghost, where my family came from in Germany or what happened to those who stayed. I had always assumed that, since they were Jews, they had probably lost distant relatives in the Holocaust. But I knew no names, dates, or individual stories.

Then I met grandfather’s second cousin Wolfgang Mueller, who had come to stay with my family in New Mexico as a refugee in 1936, and he told me that his grandmother, Julia’s youngest sister, Emilie, had died in a Nazi concentration camp. And this larger historical tragedy suddenly became much more personal. Had Julia stayed in Germany, had she given birth to my great-grandmother there, had my grandfather, who fought in World War II as an American officer in the ski-toting 10th Mountain Division, never seen New Mexico, who knows what sort of life my family would have lived.

In Mary Doria Russell’s wonderful novel Doc, a fictional rendering of another legend of the Old West, Doc Holliday cautions his friend Wyatt Earp against remaining mired in a “ghost life”—the life one might have had, if things had gone differently. Julia’s sister Emilie’s life in Germany—cultured, privileged, surrounded by friends and family—was everything that Julia felt she had lost in coming to America.

Emilie was, in many ways, leading the very ghost life that Julia had longed for in her New Mexican exile. But it ended in an unimaginably horrible manner.

The Staab Mansion, Santa  Fe

The Staab Mansion, Santa Fe

Question: The “ghost” idea, of being able to communicate with the dead, seems universal. Is it? What makes this story particularly “American” to you?

Hannah Nordhaus: Every culture seems to have its ghosts. You’re right, that’s universal. But what made this a particularly American story for me was that that the “ghost” had a family whose trajectory through the 19th century I was able to document. It’s a classic tale of immigrants, of up-by-the-bootstraps success, and of the settling of the Anglo Southwest. In the span of Julia’s lifetime, from her birth in Westphalia in 1844 to her death in Santa Fe in 1896, my German-Jewish family became an American family. It’s a ghost story, yes. But it’s also a classic American story.

Question: What’s next?

Hannah Nordhaus: At the moment, I’m playing around with a novel about the Spanish Inquisition—yes, 16th-century Spain. I’ve never written a novel before, and haven’t written fiction for years. For that matter I’ve never been to Spain (and I certainly wasn’t there in the 16th century), so I have no idea if this will stick. It would be much smarter for me to write something similar to my previous books. But nothing makes me more claustrophobic than a niche. I like to move around. I like to try new things.

That said, there are some similarities between American Ghost and my proto-novel-in-progress. Both are grounded in history (the novel is based on the true story of a young woman who was tried by the Inquisition). And both tell the story of women who left no records of their own. Their lives have been, by necessity, interpreted by others. Had not certain life circumstances conspired to place them in the historical spotlight, they would be entirely forgotten.

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Review:

“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.”

That’s a Salman Rushdie line (from The Satanic Verses) but it’s a perfect description of what Hannah Norhaus sets out to do with American Ghost—chase down some unfinished business.

In this case, the ghost is from her own past—a great-great-grandmother whose life and death deserved, well, fleshing-out.

The woman was Julia Schuster Staab. Her life began in Germany. It ended half way around the world, as the lonely and disheartened wife of a Jewish dry goods merchant, in New Mexico.

Julia Schuster Staab’s life (1844-1896) forms the heart of American Ghost. So does Julia’s ghost—a ghost first seen by a janitor at La Posada (“place of rest,” not hardly) in the 1970s. Other odd occurrences, straight out of heebie-jeebie land, soon followed.

Even without the added wrinkle of the (possibly) paranormal mixed in, the story of Julia Schuster Staab would have been ample on its own for a fascinating account of Santa Fe and settling the Southwestern frontier in the second half of the 19th Century. Julia’s husband Abraham amassed the largest fortune in Santa Fe and was an active civic leader so we see Santa Fe take root out on the western fringes of the “prairie ocean.” Some of the tales here about the multi-cultural aspects of Santa Fe’s early days, particularly that a Jew played a role in helping Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (yes, the Death Comes for the Archbishop guy) with his cathedral construction, are fascinating. The ghost question—and our collective beliefs about the spirits and apparitions—add another layer of intrigue to this brilliant book.

Nordhaus, in fact, had a longtime fixation with the ghost in her family’s past. “I gravitated to her story simply because it was such a good one,” she writes. “A child who loved stories, I could now claim my own piece of the past: a mail-order German bride dragged west, married badly, driven insane and trapped forever as a ghost in her unhappy ending.”

After college, in fact, Nordhaus moved to Santa Fe where she read extensively about the lives of women on the frontier. She later wrote her first published article about Julia Staab. It was “heavy on self-dramatization and feminist surmise,” she notes in one of many self-deprecating lines. At the time, she was certain that Julia was a victim “and that this victimhood lay behind her ghost.” Nordhaus concedes that Julia “was the specter of my twentysomething angst.”

Twenty years later, she came across a document that reignited her interest in the story—and would perhaps give her a chance to recalibrate her opinions of Julia’s life. The document, a family history written by a great aunt, Lizzie, in 1980, “was a tale of a family ecosystem deeply out of balance—forbidden love, inheritance and disinheritance, anger and madness. There were drug addictions, lawsuits, brother against brother, madhouses, penury and suicides. There were fatal wounds to the ‘bosom.’ There were Julia’s children; their story branched from hers. And it was clear to me, from Lizzie’s book, that the family was haunted well before Julia became a ghost. I wondered what had gone so wrong.”

Unfinished business.

Nordhaus traces threads wherever she can find them and what unfolds is a fascinating portrait of a stranger in a strange, barren land. American Ghost follows the history of Julia’s life, including her roots in Germany and life in the booming outpost of Santa Fe. The threads lead her back to Europe (how “American”) and Nordhaus’ research and digging in Germany are as colorful and as haunting as anything else in this account. Interspersed with the historical detail are Nordhaus’ takes on modern-day efforts to detect or stay in touch with the spirit world—ghost hunters, psychics, and drugs (medical marijuana). Her account of a ghost tour at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park is hilarious.

Nordhaus also spends a night in what was Julia’s room and, consistent with her scientific, fact-based approach to reporting, recounts a chilling moment but offers no conclusion. (Her story reminded me of my father—one of the most rational guys you would ever want to meet; he once saw an enormous UFO hovering over a field in North Carolina but refused to talk about it for fear of overdoing the account. He referred any questions to the police report he filled out later that night.)

“Ghosts are not innocent until proven guilty,” writes Nordhaus. “They are always guilty: 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.”

As she notes, ghost hunting and ancestor hunting are kin. “They both involve sifting through heaps of supposition, extrapolation, and unmoored clues interspersed with brief, infinitesimal wisps of evidence.”

The wisps come together. As both a human being and as a lingering spirit, Julia left a powerful story that comes into sharp focus in American Ghost. In the hands of Hannah Nordhaus, the resulting narrative is indelible.

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Hannah Nordhaus

American Ghost