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Bessie Head — Thunder Behind Her Ears


In early 1995 Gillian Stead Eilersen had finished her major life project — the researching and writing of the first (and to date, the only,) full-length biography of her author hero, Bessie Head — Thunder Behind Her Ears.

She spent at least a decade of work on it, using her school holidays from her teaching job in Denmark to come back to her native South Africa and continue the research. She was the first, for instance, to discover Bessie's true white family, the Birches of Johannesburg. She says it was one of the most exciting moments of her life when she finally had Kenneth Birch on the line, Bessie's mother's brother, who confirmed her hunch. (Kenneth subsequently published his own version of his family's history and remains still very much alive in 2006).

Gillian's biography was instantly acclaimed by readers and critics for its wealth of exacting detail and for its great empathy with Bessie's situations as they changed over the years. Rarely have biographer and subject been so well matched.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, Thunder is not easy to find. There are fears that it may soon go out of print. Bessie Head fans will have to make some noise!

Publication details: Bessie Head — Thunder Behind Her Ears, by Gillian Stead Eilersen, first published in southern Africa by David Philip Publishers (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town, South Africa, 1995, ISBN 0-86486-279-2 (paper); in the UK by James Currey Ltd, London, 1995, ISBN 0-85255-535-0 (paper); and in the USA by Heinemann (a division of Reed Publishing), Portsmouth, New Hamshire, 1996, ISBN 0-435-08984-6 (paper).

The book has a main text of 292 pages, followed by an Epilogue, References, Bibliography, and Index. All of the back matter is emaculately prepared and is a treasure trove. There are 28 photos, most of which have never been published anywhere else. The long list of Acknowledgements includes amost everyone in southern Africa who was a friend or colleague of Bessie's during her adult career.

The frontispiece gives the source of the title, a letter that Bessie wrote to a friend:

"I write best if I can hear the thunder
behind my ears. Not even Rain Clouds
was real thunder yet. Some of my letters to
friends are faint rumblings of it."

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