Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: Robert Olen Butler’s “The Ironworkers’ Hayride”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I’ll write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

Apart from one of his story collections, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler has never made much impression on me; but one of his stories, “The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” I’ve remembered ever since I read it seven years ago.

The story centers on Milton, an employee at an ironworks in 1911. In the period details Butler sometimes seems to be throwing things in (a hayride, Model-T, women’s suffrage) just to throw them in, to point out that the time is not our time, but he does such a good job with the main character as to recover from this fault.

Milton is an accountant, and throughout the story you catch his sense of out-of-placeness; he doesn’t fit with the other men at the ironworks, which is probably what leads one of the furnace men, Zach, to push him to take his sister-in-law, Maggie, on the ironworkers’ hayride. Maggie is missing one of her legs, and as Milton figures, this is the sort of detail that Zach doesn’t want his friends from work to learn about.

Butler gets Milton’s tendency to over-think and over-analyze, as well as the feeling of first meeting someone and realizing that, you know, this could be someone. The writing goes kind of stupid when Milton first sees Maggie, as you’d expect.

She is swell looking. She’s wearing a blue sailor dress with the big collar and the wide, knotted tie hanging down the center of her chest, and her head is bare, her hair all gathered up there with a wide, dark ribbon circling the crown, and there is a radiance all around her—thanks to the Ford, but radiance nonetheless—her whole head is surrounded with a bright glow, like a saint, a martyred saint who has lost her leg to an evil duke—a partially martyred saint—and her face is very pale and delicate of nose and brow and ear and so forth—my eyes are dancing around her, not taking her in very objectively, I realize—her mouth is a sweet painted butterfly.

It’s a short story, and a fun one, and a sometimes weird one. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is the one to read if you’re looking for a book of Butler’s, but this story is a lighter introduction than the stories in that collection.

Read “The Ironworkers’ Hayride



I’ve actually never heard of Robert Olen Butler (or if I have, I’ve forgotten), but I think I will try this story out, especially since it’s so short!

This is a really great feature you have, and I’m going to look through the archives! I love short stories, but I rarely read them outside of collections.

(P. S. Your old dog Sunny, in the post below this one, is adorable!)

Comment by Shannyn (Libellule)

i don’t know if this is weird, but few things make me happier than when someone thinks my dog is as adorable as i do.

also, i’m glad you like this feature! i started it because i also tend to read short stories only in collections – but in the past few years i’ve stopped even reading many story collections. it’s nice to remember the pleasure of sitting down and reading a story in one sitting and sometimes discovering an author i never would have heard of if not for the random lit mag i picked up. and it has the advantage (if it could be called that?) of making me want to write more short stories myself.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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