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Fiction Family Life

In The Place Of Last Things

by (author) Michael Helm

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Oct 2005
Family Life, Literary, NON-CLASSIFIABLE
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2005
    List Price

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A finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Canada and Caribbean region), and a Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year
After his father’s death, Russ Littlebury inherits the task of driving his aunt to her winter home in Arizona. While in Montana, he promises the daughter of a family friend that he will search for her absconded boyfriend, Jack Marks — a man Russ will discover is manipulative, charismatic, and brutal. As Russ travels from the American Southwest to the underworlds of Juarez, Mexico, and back in time from Toronto to Saskatchewan, he confronts his last months with his father and his affair with an open-hearted woman whose convictions entangled them in a small deception, with unforeseen consequences. Fuelled by a sense of responsibility and a growing fascination with the elusive Marks, Russ finds himself unexpectedly face to face with his own past. Michael Helm’s highly acclaimed second novel takes the reader on a breathtaking journey that explores violence, conversion, and loss, and the uneasy consolations we sometimes find in faith and love.

About the author


  • Nominated, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
  • Nominated, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)

Contributor Notes

Michael Helm is the acclaimed author of The Projectionist, a finalist for The Giller Prize, and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and for a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. He studied literature at the University of Toronto, and has taught at colleges and universities in Canada and in the U.S. His writings on fiction, poetry, and photography have appeared in North American newspapers and magazines, including Brick, where he has been an editor since 2003.

Born in Saskatchewan, Michael Helm has lived most recently in Michigan and Toronto.

Excerpt: In The Place Of Last Things (by (author) Michael Helm)

He woke in the new utter dark and swung his feet to the floor, maintaining motion until he was dressed against the chill already gaining the interior. The clock read 2:38. He took the flashlight from the bed table and made his way flight by flight to the basement. In two movements known by touch he turned off all but one breaker and reset the standby power switch, then climbed to the entryway for his parka and boots with his breath breaking there above the beam.

Outside, night sky on the snow. A lone highway sound came miles along crystals of ice hung dimeshining in the quarter moon. When the generator started on the third pull he attached the wire to the ground lug, led the cord out and pressed the head to the 220 outlet. The kitchen light appeared in the empty house. He positioned his father’s old anvil against the open door of the garage, then stepped high and deliberate through the knee-­deep and crossed to his neighbour’s yard. He bent to clean the snow from the runners, gripped both hands on one side of the tool shed’s sliding doors and pulled open a space wide enough to move into. A skiff of snow had fingered through the opening where the doors ­wouldn’t meet. The generator was just a few feet inside where he could find it in the dark.

He poured a little gasoline to prime the engine, a line of faintest light bending along the arc. The engine played dead for a time but came to on the seventh pull and the shed was loud and soon there ­wouldn’t be enough air. He turned on the light. A dead cat on its side frozen cuneiform near the wall. He collected it by the tail and thought hatchet.

Back in the garage he removed the torn side bag from the Lawn-­Boy. The cat fit exact. He closed up both ends with wire. To repair the holes he removed his gloves and used his fingers to find the end of the duct tape. When the job was done he lay the cat on the concrete and told him he had died a joiner.

His steps along the packed path to the house sounding like nails clawed from old lumber beams, he crossed hare tracks, the delicate passage that lingered there as certain as the ice storm somewhere miles away. Grain elevators soldiered to the north against the dustings of galaxies. The town was in black but for the hospital, its lemon brick pocked in the emergency lamplight of the backup power that still kicked in though the place itself had been shut down since summer, the only services now a clinic three days a week and an ambulance to move the very sick and injured to a town forty miles away. In the fall had been machine accidents, mangled crying along the long highway.

After a minute inside, his breath began to thaw in his eyebrows and nostrils. He towelled his face in the mirror. A 230-­pound version of a white man returned from the burning cold, clear eyes, skin flushed the colour of red-­figure frescoes he’d studied in books. He’d dreamt the colour that very night, he recalled. In some other season or epoch was a clay wall emanating heat, and some form swept into the pigment ready to awaken and find him there watching.

On the kitchen bench-­seat he opened another tin of sweets from the Lions Club, looked, set it aside. They’d given him a turkey plate at Christmas like they did for widowers, and the sweets kept coming. He’d given some to Skidder and to Mrs. Ellis next door but the rest had dried into small, hard consolations on the counter.

The first quality of soul is patience — it was a line from his learning. Patience was his company lately.

After the town lights came up he went out and killed the generators and came back in. He took his place again and sat awake in the kitchen through until dawn.


In the days that followed, the cold broke and the highs reached minus-­twenty. In the mornings the ice fog and hoarfrost made the town look like a calendar shot. Russ ­didn’t phone anyone he ­couldn’t visit in person. He took breakfast in the coffee shop of the Flyway Motel, where he sometimes used to, lingered a few minutes in the post office to say his hellos, dropped a thank-­you note off at the Colliston Sentinel three weeks late. He visited his dad’s grave for the first time since the funeral. He bought items at the Co-­Op store rather than having them delivered. Eight or ten times a day he received passing condolences and heard an old dog joke he’d resurrected for Skidder the previous week.

At the Credit Union, Russ told loan manager Glen Stockard he’d like to sign something so Glen could look after his bills if anything should happen to him. Glen listened with great circumspection as Russ explained where he was going and why. Behind Glen, in lieu of a window with nearly the same prospect, was an oil painting with a view of the town’s grain elevators from the Main Street of twenty years ago. Russ noted to himself that the painting’s sad and hopeful quality had less to do with the fact that two of the elevators had since been torn down than that the colours were a little wrong. In ’88, after four years of drought and bad markets, Glen and the bank took title to almost half of the family’s land and rented it back to Russ’s father so someone would be working at the debt. The half that the family kept was under a company name, the Circle L Ranch, whose shareholders were Mike and his brother, Russ’s Uncle Reese in Saskatoon. The degree to which Reese hated banks would have been dangerous in most men.

“I ­can’t look after ranch expenses, Russ. You’ll need your uncle to sign over power of attorney.”

“There’s no ranch. All that’s left is the lawyer.”

“I know that. But I need the signature.”

Russ looked out the window at nothing.

“I know how your dad ran things for his brother, but ­don’t you forge this.”

Glen pushed himself back from his steel desk and glided until the casters met up with an electrical cord snaked over the carpet, then reclined, laid his hands as if in prayer on his belly. He was a typical homegrown, beefy and thick-­limbed, blunted hands and face. He stared a moment at the two cows grazing underwater in the paperweight snow globe on his desk.

God forbid something should happen to Russ while he was taking Jean down to Arizona, Glen explained, then he’d be left holding a lot of questions it ­wasn’t his place to answer.

“If your uncle ­doesn’t know about signing over his authority then things would get muddy.”

“You’d send a man out on the road in this cold?”

“There’s technology, Canada Post. And the other thing. You’re not superstitious, are you?”

“Not even on a bad day.”

“I hate to bring up the scenario again but I want to ask about your will. There’d be a helluva mess for your executor with certain estate questions already in probate.”

“It’s in shape.”

“Good. I hear Skidder’s going down with you. He’s started up again with the stories about his Wild West relative.”

“His coming along ­wasn’t my call.”

“I bet not. I’ll remember you in church.”

As he left the office Russ saw the teller counter lined with little white death notices that the paper printed up and distributed. The cards announced the funerals and businesses left them up for a few weeks to collect charity donations. In the last five-­week stretch there’d been thirteen funerals, the usual winter kill.

Russ ducked his head back in and asked Glen if there’d been any lost-cat stories in the air. He said no but he’d heard a good dog joke.

“Listen, you’ve been looking out for me. I ­can’t remember if I thanked you.”

“It’s my job.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I ­wasn’t gonna ask, Russ, but — it’s been a couple months now.”

“What is it?”

Glen evidently ­couldn’t find a side door to the matter.

“I ­don’t know. You used to have an entertaining temper. Now you just scare people.”

“Well spread the news. They can come out of their houses again.”

Along the street he walked thinking of the other Russ, whom he knew inside and out like a favourite character in a novel he’d read over and over but never entirely through. The other Russ had been out in the world, schooled to no apparent end. He had a mean corrective streak. He measured all others and himself against his father, and he and they together fell short. He made sense so neatly that Russ had stopped believing in him.
He passed rusting propane tanks stacked upright behind a machine shop, leaning like loaves in a bakery window in an eastern city in October when the bread seeps out into the chill and you go inside to take a number and marvel at the names, all the variations of a simple thing like “bread” worked up from a single crusted syllable. You are at any moment the sum of what you’ve closed your hand upon or ever hoped to and said the name of. To really forget a thing, you had to forget it in your hands, on your tongue.

This was the place for such a forgetting. White, featureless, cold. His radiant host of the learned dead had followed him to these frozen reaches. They’d been a comfort to him, had even helped him nurse his dying father, though when he died they left town. In his sleepless nights he’d not picked up a book but waited each one out to its end.

And that had left him only duty. He had inherited little else. At the moment it was leading southward and away. Jean was now almost three months late getting to her winter place. He would rather stay, but he had no choice. Duty had released him from choice.

Editorial Reviews

In the Place of Last Things is a fine book by a very fine writer. In it, Michael Helm demonstrates that he has become one of Canada’s very best writers.”
The Literary Review of Canada
“[S]hattering …. a steam train of a novel. Page after page etched with sentences so graceful, so hypnotically rhythmic and internally true to conditions, you’ll find yourself inside that singular bubble of experience reserved for the reading of a fiction marked to remain in the world long after you aren’t."
—Ken Babstock, The Ottawa Citizen

"The writing is funny and incisive, with a terrific newness about it…. Helm rises to the challenge of making our longing and imagining worthy and beautiful."
—Karen Solie, The Globe and Mail

"Occasionally a book comes along that stops you in your tracks. Michael Helm’s In the Place of Last Things … is that kind of book…. A beautiful achievement."
The Toronto Star

“Helm possesses a terrific cadence of speech and language. He drops dialogue like a dime in a pay phone…. [P]oignant …. the writing soars.”
The National Post

In the Place of Last Things – potent, provocative, and stylish – confirms Helm as a major new talent.”
Border Crossings

“This is the best thing I’ve read in a really long time. It’s totally convincing, a terrific blend of story, tension, humour, and language. . . . An amazing book.”
—Michael Winter

“Michael Helm’s very fine novel is a rarity, an eloquent and passionate appeal to both readers’ hearts and their minds.”
—Guy Vanderhaeghe

“A collision of muscle and sensuality, reason and vision. . . . A beautiful achievement.”
Toronto Star
“[This book] only magnifies Michael Helm’s position within the handful of our best younger novelists.”
Ottawa Citizen

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