1220 Gothic mountain fiction
Goth Girls of Banff
by John O’Neill
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2020
$19.95 / 9781988732954
Reviewed by Myshara Herbert-McMyn
The author of a novel and four poetry collections, John O’Neill is a former high-school Dramatic Arts and English teacher who now lives and writes in Toronto. His Goth Girls of Banff presents short stories about Banff, that small arts and tourism town in the Rocky Mountains a stone’s throw from BC’s eastern border. O’Neill has learned to listen to Banff, its people, and the surrounding mountains. His stories captivated and drew me in until it felt like I was reaching inside the body cavity of a killer bear, or at the very least hiring some of his eclectic Goth Girls of Banff to climb with me. This collection is enthralling enough to draw anyone in.
The first story begins our mountain journey. In “What is Written, or, Talking to Keep the Bears Away,” we get into the Allan family’s car with Don, a hitchhiker, and travel down a dangerous road through the Rockies. Though Don is a stranger, he’s welcomed into the car without judgement or fear. This story introduced what to me is the overarching theme of this collection: connections. Mountains have always felt lonely to me, but I love the idea that being in the mountains can bring you closer to another person, and that you can find kinship with another when travelling down different paths on the same road deep in a valley between high mountain peaks.
The young woman in “Attacking the Bear” reaches for her sketchpad as she faces down a bear. Yet her connection to the bear comes not from fear, but from curiosity and art. Creativity is crucial to her life; it allows her to feel things more deeply. Her urge to capture the moment and the bear’s beauty is overwhelming. Her creative instinct defies logic by overruling her natural response to fear. Focused on interest and inspiration rather than fear of bears, this story interested me far more than countless bear stories where people (understandably) panic.
“The Book About the Bears” concerns a man who performs animal necropsies. He seems to be stuck somewhere between animal and man, as if every animal he examines had given a little part of itself to him, and he had given a bit of himself in exchange. As the world attempts to bring him closer to humanity, he hesitates. He accepts an outstretched hand from an unusual source and allows himself to connect in an unexpected way.
In “Three Places,” a man is tasked with scattering the ashes of Hannah, his wife, who had asked to be scattered on a river where the water meets the shore. Their past connection, and Hannah’s past connection to this river, allow him to make a very different call. Though he went along with his wife’s need for routine during her life, on her death he takes the initiative and goes off script. Perhaps, I thought, we need to make our own decisions to move forward, away from old connections and on to others.
“Marilyn in the Mountains: Nine Poses” is a beautiful imagining of Marilyn Monroe’s thoughts and feelings on the set of the Hollywood movie River of No Return (1954), which was filmed in Banff and Jasper. Nine photos, one for each story, help build the basis of these apparently static moments and give O’Neill a series of images of Marilyn’s life. She eats dinner, waves to fans from the driver’s seat of a car, poses poolside with an injured ankle, and so on. But behind every picture necessarily is implicit and extended movement. We use photos to capture movements of our lives to look back on and remember. For me, the moment the flash goes off isn’t the memory that comes to mind when reflecting on my own family vacation photos in the mountains. It’s the swimming, the people, the laughing in the evening, the great food. O’Neill does something similar here as he transforms the photos from fixed moments into pieces of the puzzle that was Marilyn Monroe.
Anyone who reads Goth Girls of Banff will be drawn to something deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I find myself yearning to go to Banff and explore, to meet strangers, to hear their stories, and to see what other secrets are being kept quietly in the valleys between the peaks. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Banff, I suggest picking this book up. It will frighten you and inspire you and, in the end, you might just yearn for a slice of that adventure too.
Myshara Herbert-McMyn is a book reviewer and aspiring writer living in the Okanagan. She runs the blog Lit&Leta. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from Thompson Rivers University. Editor’s note: Myshara Herbert-McMyn has also reviewed books by Christina Myers, Paul Bae and Ruth Daniell for The Ormsby Review. Previously, with her TRU mentor Ginny Ratsoy, she reviewed books by Roo Phelps and Tim Conley. Myshara lives in Kelowna.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster