by Skylar Kay
Goth Girls of Banff
by John O’Neill
NeWest Press (2020)
John O’Neill’s Goth Girls of Banff captures so many aspects of life in and around Banff in brilliant ways. Through expertly presenting characters and landscape, O’Neill instantly creates an environment that draws the reader in, presenting sunlight slopes and dark crevices of both the mountains and humans in general. The stories find loose connections throughout, as names or objects may reappear in later stories, but nature’s harsh indifference is a thread by which one can follow the trail of stories laid out by O’Neill, if they dare.
The characters in O’Neill’s stories are generally well presented. This much is obvious even from the first story, as Don and Lee will steal the heart of any reader who has one. The titular story as well, “Goth Girls of Banff” presents us with only the observations of Linda through her sister, but it is done so well that the reader can imagine near perfectly what causes her actions. The way these characters mesh together, or push away from each other, becomes important to the collection as a whole, as human connection is a topic onto which one can hold during Goth Girls of Banff. These human connections are typified in “Rudy” as the titular character desperately tries to make connections with people around him–the athletic ‘push it up’ couple that he eavesdrops on at night, and the server at his hotel. This need for human contact inevitably reminds me of the garrison mentality, as the ghost of Frye persists into modern Canada, watching people struggle to find each other and band together in order to face wilderness and come out in one piece.
Facing wilderness also leads to conflict between humans and nature, inevitably. Bears, moose, and wolves all make appearances, haunting a landscape that is within the reach of a city, but still so far removed. Bears become central characters in multiple stories, “The Book about the Bear” and “Attacking the Bear.” Both of these stories show a human encountering a bear one on one, face to face. Although the bear is not alive in one of these stories, the outcome is the same; the human ends up taking a risk and making a much-needed human connection as a result of the grizzly exchange, as O’Neill presents human connection almost as a sign of being alive, something intrinsic to being human.
One story of the collection which I find particularly important is “From Castle Mountain” a story which traces the lives of three generations, as father and son travel to Banff to see where the grandfather worked as a prisoner during the first world war. This story, in addition to O’Neill’s already mentioned ability to present amazing characters facing the harsh wilderness of Banff, is invaluable for teaching a part of Canadian history that is often ignored.
Whether looking for a story about the Rocky Mountains’ breathtaking (often literal) nature, or for some stories to pull on your heartstrings and teach you about what makes us human, O’Neill’s Goth Girls of Banff is a collection that has something for everyone.
Skylar Kay is a recent Mount Royal graduate with a degree in English. She is interested in haiku and plans to pursue an M.A in Japanese Literature. She is a prose editor for FreeFall Magazine.