Building a Memory
A review of Joni Foster’s When Normal Blew Up
Harold O. Wilson
Joni Foster was nine years old on Saturday, April 15, 1967 when Lee Holbrook walked into Bingman’s Drug Store in Circleville, Ohio. He carried a smoking wooden box covered by his coat. Holbrook shouted he had a bomb and after a scuffle with the two pharmacists, one of whom was Joni’s father, the bomb blew the pharmacy apart. Five people were killed including Joni’s father.
When the bomb exploded Joni and her friend Janet Osborn were in the car with Joni’s mother. They were close enough to the explosion to feel the car shudder and to see smoke billow up down the street. Joni’s mother parked the car and ran toward the drug store. Joni and Janet were found in the car by Janet’s father, Ken Osborn and taken to his home. They went upstairs and continued playing. “We knew something had happened,” Foster writes, “but nothing was explained to us. We were kids after all.” That night she, her three brothers, and her sister were told they no longer had a father.
Something happened and she no longer had a father. That was what she knew. And over the years, other than rumors and some mean gossip, that was all she was to know. “I asked every twenty years or so for a remembrance,” Foster says, “but my family was at a loss for words. What was there to say? It happened, we were sad; we moved on.” This was the sum total of her memory. Her knowing, her access to memory was constrained by a taboo to talk about the day or the dead.
What Foster has set out to do in When Normal Blew Up is to break that taboo by building a personal memory of a fifty year old event — a memory cobbled together from the stories of those who lived it and wrote about it. With these pieces, gleaned from interviews and written accounts, Foster has arranged a coherent whole that will allow her to hold to this bit of the past. I would not characterize her book as a memoir: the pulling together of remembered events and one’s attitude toward them. When Normal Blew Up is the creation of a personal memory built out of virtually nothing more than found bits and pieces of remembrance blown across the landscape by a single catastrophic event in time.
Building a memory from the collected remembrance of almost strangers fifty years on is not an easy task. Memory is fluid. Mutable, it is the original shape shifter. The bits and pieces flung out by the explosion flutter, dissolve, and change over time. The task of the history writer would be to tame them and shape them, objectify them so they make sense and speak to a point. But Foster is not a history writer, she is building a memory for herself and offering a platform of remembrance for others. But she is invested in her task on a personal level so she must be careful, at least to the degree possible, not to contaminate the bits and pieces she collects with her own needs and desires.
To help with this, Foster has skillfully imbedded these bits of remembrance into the rural character of Ohio out of which they flew in the 1960’s. Circleville, Ohio is the glue that holds her story together. America was on the cusp of change at this time with the Civil Rights Movement, the Woman’s Movement and the anti Vietnam War Movement, roiling the country. But like a lot of small town America, Circleville, was not yet fully in the mix. The town glossed over a Kentucky hill country heritage that stigmatized “shotgun weddings,” kept women in their place, which was in the home barefoot and pregnant, celebrated the dominance of men, and demanded a veneer of respectability presided over by the local Protestant Church and men’s service clubs. Foster is quick to point out the restrictive and demeaning role of women this attitude fostered. Family tensions in Circleville were exacerbated by a number of women who broke the mold by working. “Women in the working world received encouragement from their co-workers,’ Foster says, ‘from other women stepping outside the house. Gradually, and not without conflict, women were not quite as submissive to their husbands’ sense of social order. Women in Circleville weren’t necessarily ‘burning their bras’ in protest, but they were part of this subtle shift.” Tension, for example, was particularly evident in the Holbrook house and may have contributed to Lee Holbrook’s action in Bingman’s Drug Store where his wife worked as a clerk. The irony is that his wife, Phyllis was not working the day he blew up the pharmacy.
And so, as Foster forms her memory of those who lived and those who died in the drug store that day, an important subtext emerges in the book: the subservient role and coming emancipation of women. Foster is careful with her expression of feminism. It is not aggressive but it is not subtle either. She does point out that the stories that were told about the explosion and the fire were about the men, even though it was the women who picked up the pieces.
“The women were bystanders, bit players in a drama that required action, strength, and bravery. Women didn’t get on the ladders, or rush into the building, or lead the recovery efforts. Women didn’t make the bomb. They were in the background, extras on the ‘set.’ This was the reality of women in the 1960s, the box they moved around in. Yet afterward, women played a significant role in picking up the pieces. Thank goodness, then, when it was our time to stand up, society offered us a bit more room to maneuver.”
Foster gives the subservient role of women in the life of Circleville just enough play to draw attention to it and knit it into the fabric of the community without shifting the emphasis of the story from the explosion and its effect on the lives in the community. “Fifty years later,” she says, “I was surprised by the newspaper account, to realize what a big deal the town made for the two men – (the two pharmacists who were killed in the explosion) – they were celebrated as heroes – yet the two women who lost their lives were laid to rest without public fanfare.”
Foster divides her book into Normal, What Happened, and Stories of the People Who Lived On. In the section titled Normal, she paints a picture of Circleville and the lives of the people most involved in the explosion. We become attached to them and worry about what is to become of them. Foster brings them alive with her little descriptions and we care about them. What Happened speaks for itself. She shows a small town coming together, putting aside its differences and engaging a crisis. It is what we would expect.
The most powerful part of the book, however, is The Stories of the People Who Lived On. Don’t forget that Foster is building a memory for herself here. She is not writing history. And even though she is invested, she has no ax to grind. She also resists any serious attempt at a cause-and–effect analysis. As a result, her approach is generally matter-of-fact, i.e. this is what they did when life was normal, this is what they did when their lives were blown apart. Most of them, two of the women who lost husbands and the two men who survived basically picked up the pieces and made new lives for themselves. It was Phyllis Holbrook, the wife of the bomber who never recovered. “In many ways, except physically, she died with the explosion,” her son told Foster. “She went off the deep end.” She would disappear then appear again. “If my mother was still alive and you asked her where she went, I bet she couldn’t tell you where she was or what she did. Her mind was totally gone,” her son said.
Phyllis Holbrook was a battered wife, and then stalked by her estranged husband pending their divorce. The stalking culminated in the explosion in Bingman’s Drug Store. Even after that, however, Phyllis Holbrook was not free. Rumors persisted that she was having an affair and that’s why her husband blew up the drug store. According to the townspeople, not only was she tainted by divorce, but if her husband beat her she must have deserved it, and now the explosion in the pharmacy might also have been her fault: her husband driven to it by her infidelity.
Phyllis Holbrook wasn’t in the pharmacy that day so escaped being blown apart. It was her entire world that was blown to pieces around her. Her son told Foster, “I think Mom, when she passed away, had less at that time in her life than when we were kids. She had virtually nothing.” She died at eighty-seven.
We yearn for Foster to draw conclusions in her account, cast blame, offer judgment (God damn, how can a man be so jealous of his wife’s job in a drug store that he blows it up?), but she does not. It is her memory of this time and this place she is building and she decides not to taint it with rancor. The blame, conclusions, and judgment are all offered by those she interviewed.
Foster ends the book by saying “I felt I couldn’t end this story without some account of how this tragedy affected my life.” Then she goes on to say that that is probably impossible because, “There are too many competing factors to say for sure that this one event changed everything or changed anything.” She is right of course but then goes on to offer some superficial connections and recount events in her life going forward from that time.
So now Joni has a more complete memory of that period. Even though it is a memory written down, in her mind it will change. As it changes it will alter her view of herself, her past and of her future. Memory is always what we are now, not what we think we were at the time.
Foster has written an excellent book. You should read it. You will learn a great deal about Circleville, Ohio, its people, and that eventful day in its past. And as Joni builds her memory of that time you may even learn something about yourself.