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The Lion Seeker

3.65 of 5 stars 3.65  ·  rating details  ·  461 ratings  ·  105 reviews
In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
Are you a stupid or a clever?

Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger’s mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mot
Hardcover, 576 pages
Published October 15th 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published February 26th 2013)
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Community Reviews

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Steven Langdon
Kenneth Bonert writes in the Acknowledgements supplement to this powerful novel about his "profound gratitude" to his late grandmother, her memories of her Lithuanian home village of Dusat, and the Jewish community in South Africa that "so nourished her." It is clear that this book is a labour of love, inspired by family experiences and tragedies that shape the work's harsh narrative and complex interwoven texture.

Isaac Helger, five year old hellion as this story begins, is the central character
I hesitated to rate this book. It's set in South Africa with all the linguistic style it entails, and I don't particularly enjoy that. Whereas it's also a story of the world war ii (or so it says on the blurb), and I love stories of the war. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to read, but it wasn't a war story. Rather, it's a story of a young jewish man being brought up in South Africa, having been lucky enough to escape Lithuania when Hitler wasn't even a name. Consequently, he is one of the ...more
While it took a while for me to get into the book, eventually it became a book next to impossible to put down and it will likely end up being one of my favourite reads of the year.

The characters weren't exactly likeable ones, although certain parts of the book, when they were going through particular traumas and events, struck some emotional reactions for me. There were a few shocking moments, gut wrenching - I was surprised how the well the author managed to pull the reader into the story and
Lara Kleinschroth
This is from an ARC sent to me by the publisher.

It's amazing how many stories there still are from the time of World War II - so many different angles and perspectives, so many lives affected, all over the world. And how relevant and searing these stories still are today.

This one is about a young Jewish boy living in Johannesburg after emigrating there with his family from Lithuania. At a time when Jewish people the world over are about to be persecuted on the grandest scale, life for them in Jo
Not sure if this book is for everyone but I totally enjoyed it. It is the European Jewish immigrant's story but this one is S Africa which might not be as know to Americans. I particularly enjoyed the use of Yiddish which was well translated.

It is a powerful book about love, family, sin and forgiveness.
Im ersten Teil erfahren wir, dass Isaac mit Mutter und Schwester aus einem kleinen Dorf in Lettland zu seinem Vater, der in Südafrika lebt und dort bereits eine Uhrmacherwerkstatt betreibt, auswandert. Was dazu geführt hat erfahren wir nach und nach im Lauf der Geschichte.

Isaacs Mutter Gitelle ist sehr ehrgeizig und will für ihren Sohn alles erreichen. So verbietet sie ihm Kontakt mit den Einheimischen Schwarzen, denn Weiße haben diese zu verachten um anerkannt zu werden.
Energisch vertreibt sie
This is a first novel and it is one of the most, perhaps the most, wildly ambitious piece of fiction I have ever read. It's deep. It's about good and evil and sin and forgiveness in such a deep and honest way. The main character is deeply flawed and yet I loved him. That fact alone gave the whole work a tenderness, vulnerability, questioning, genuineness and humanity. But it was a tough gritty book as well. I haven't read a book in a long time that had me on the edge of my chair and that I simpl ...more
Jim Puskas
Occasionally lyrical, often gritty, this is a big, angry story about a tough, resourceful young man growing up in a chaotic world populated by deeply damaged refugees, abused native tribesmen, crafty charlatans, brutal Nazi-influenced bullies and roughnecks of all kinds. What fascinating characters Bonert is able to portray and how complex, real and deeply human they are, with all their foibles, contradictions, self-delusions!
Plagued by misfortune and betrayal, Isaac pursues desperate dreams of
Even though I thought this novel was too long (561-pages); it was a page-turner for me. The Lion Seeker is both a coming-of-age novel and an emigrant saga set in Jewish Johannesburg between the two world wars. The protagonist, Isaac Hegler, is the son of a working-class Lithuanian Jewish family. He is a rough redheaded boy fueled by a shameless audacity. Isaac cheats and claws he way out of poverty urged on by his demanding mother. Isaac is not a pleasant character, but you feel empathy and horr ...more
This story of a Jewish South African was so intense I think it might trigger a mood disorder. It starts with a childhood, and here the language is mixed, like the language of migrant children. The literary English of the narration clashes powerfully with the Yiddish, Afrikaans and occasional Zulu of the dialogue. The effect reminded me briefly of another classic Jewish novel, Call it Sleep.

As the boy grows, and the world races towards the 20th Century's most famous Evils, the parallels between t
Lester I feel empty.
To think that this world..the humans of this planet..continue the atrocities year after year..decade after decade.
What things the human being is capable of is the scariest and most overwhelmingly frightening of all the animal kingdom.
I do have family from Lithuania..will I pass this book to my daughters to read?..YES yes yes. Though it is a 'story'..the realities are still there.
Thank you Kenneth Bonert.
Steve Quinn
Wow. I just finished reading this. I loved it. Beyond the wonderfully unfamiliar South African setting, what grabbed me were the language and the characters. The dialogue was so foreign yet true to life. And the characters were real. I won't try to say more than that because its really that simple. The story moved me, but the characters stuck with me. I haven't cared about characters that much in a long time.
Terry Heller
Halfway through this book, I would have given it four or four and one-half stars, but the second half was looser and baggier than the first, and had a few digressions that were not worth the trip. It's a bildungsroman, set in the Jewish ghetto of Doorfontein, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where thousands of Lithuanian Jews settled in the aftermath of World War I. By coincidence, I'm good friends with a couple of people whose parents or grandparents would have lived in that community, so I had s ...more
The book is about a Jewish family who left Lithuania to Johannesburg, South Africa before World War Two. The village ds of thing she where she lived was closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia. You realized right away what a change this was for her and her two children, the daughter Rively the oldest and Issac. The husband Abel was a watch maker and Gitelle was a homemaker and a fixer of all kind of things that she sold. The story centers around the son Issac. You see what happens to him al ...more
The writing was good, even though I don't like reading lots of dialect in the conversations because I don't understand exactly what they are talking about all the time. It was good enough that I wanted to keep reading it to find out what happens, but it was like watching a train wreck and not being able to turn away. The protagonist was very flawed, (realistic) and also very young when he did the worst to ruin the things most important to him. I wanted to shake him and say "look at what you are ...more
Story of a family of Jews who immigrated from Lithuania to South Africa early in 20th century. Mother, a very strong character, has a disfigurement on her face. We don't learn exactly what or how she got it until late in the book. Father, who had shot himself in the foot to escape 25 years in the Russian army, was a watch repairman who worked out of his home. The main character is Isaac, their son. His mother wants Isaac to make something of himself but feels making money is more important than ...more
Wow. WOW. Epic. The language will blow you away, of a time and a place you've never been to, but trust me, you want to go to. It's brutal. It will tear you up. But now that I'm done I miss it. I want to go back and I'm sad that I'll never again get to have a first time there. So if you read this (and you should, now, please), savor it.
Jennifer Blunt
I liked this book - I didn't love it. I wanted to love it but there were a few things that bothered me. First of all I had trouble getting into the rhythm of this book because of the multiple dialects used. This is just a personal preferences and other's may love it, but it just took me awhile to settle in. The rest of the book I enjoyed up until Part 3. It felt like it became a different book. First of all, I hated Isaac running off to war. There was literally no warning and I honestly thought ...more
4.5 stars

Sprawling historical saga of a Jewish family that emigrates from Lithuania to South Africa in the early 1900s. Energetic writing, vivid characters, lots of conflict made the pages of this book fly by.
I loved this book! I started off slowly, a little put off by the South African dialect and the unfamiliar Jewish immigrant setting (not Lower East Side!), and then became immersed in a powerful story with fascinating characters (Isaac, Gittele, Abel, Hugo, etc.). Learned a lot about 1930's and 1940's South African Jewish world and general S.A. society (and maybe a little more than I needed to know about auto repair). Couldn't put it down. Deservedly winner of National Jewish Book Award. Main cha ...more
Penny (Literary Hoarders)
I have to sit on this one for a bit before I can clearly give my thoughts. The evil that human kind can produce and participate in is saddening.
Barb Wiseberg
I have always enjoyed books about Jewish immigrants, but most that I have read are about families moving to North America.

In the Lion Seeker, over many years we learn about Isaac and his family.

Poor Lithuanian Jews who move to Johannesburg in South Africa.

Beyond the strong story, Kenneth Bonert has an intuitive attention to detail, from the use of phrases in yiddish, to the dunking of rusks in hot tea. All the details were able to help me visualize the story, adding rich depth to each character.
Read my review on New York Journal of Books.
huge saga of lithuanian jews escaping just in time and immigrating to south africa. very neat use of multiple languages: Yiddish, Afrikaans, zulu, hebrew, english, patois. so mom has a secret, from the 'old home', and son , through epic struggle, finally gives his mom want she wants. but she's dead. also, piercing ideas of 'race' and prejudice, how all look down on blacks, even jews, who are looked down on by all. sick.
has a great chase scene in the new 'homeland' created in 1940's in southern j
Jeremy Wong
A raw, uplifting and heartbreaking tale of a Jewish boy's childhood and adult years in pre-apartheid South Africa, THE LION SEEKER is one of the latest Jewish historical fiction novels that is sure to leave an imprint on you with some of its graphic imagery. WARNING: There are sections of the book which are not for squeamish people.
I was first notified about this novel when I read an interview with the author on Goodreads ( and later managed to find the
I got this through a FirstReads Giveaway.

I don't think I ever would have read this had I not won it in a contest, but I am so, so glad I did.

The Lion Seeker is the story of Isaac Helger, who moved to South Africa from Lithuania in the 1920's, when he was four years old. The story follows Isaac as a child, running around the slum where he lives with his quiet father and frighteningly determined mother, as a teenager angry at a world that won't let him earn enough money to fulfill his mother's dr
Oct 31, 2013 Beth rated it 4 of 5 stars
What happens to a son's "coming of age" when a Jewish family emigrates from Lithuania to "Joberg" (Johannesburg)South Africa and the parents bring their values. The mother wants her son not to be a "stupid". She wants her sisters to emigrate to be near her and for her son to eventually gift her with a house in a nice neighborhood. The father wants the son to settle into a trade like he has; he is a clock & watch repair person. The parents rejoice at times and continue to encourage Isaac, but ...more
Isaac Helger’s parents fled Lithuania for South Africa after the First World War, seeking refuge from the same horror that left his mother’s face permanently scarred. The family settles into a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Johannesburg, but Isaac’s mother can only dream of her son earning money to save the rest of her family from dangers on the horizon in Lithuania. Faced with this task, Isaac’s life becomes a series of encounters, partnerships, relationships and secrets aimed only at suc ...more
I won this as a Goodreads first reads, courtesy of Random House Canada.

The Lion Seeker is a coming of age novel set South Africa during the political unrest leading up to, during and after Hitler's rise to power.

Unbelievably, this is the debut novel for Kenneth Bonert, a South African native who now calls Toronto home.

The Lion Seeker is written in 3 parts, the different phases of Issac's life. Sometimes brutal, often honestly upfront, we follow Issac Helger as he blunders through life facing di
This is a coming of age story. I love coming of age stories. Absolutely adore them. They're always so human, the kind of stories that reach out and grasp a hold of your soul with their intimacy. Naturally, based on the genre alone, I loved this book. But I loved it for more than that. I loved it for the way it opened my eyes to a world that was completely foreign to me before I delved into its pages.

Now that I've gushed, a little bit about this book: the story focuses on the growing up of Isaac
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DC Public Library: The Lion Seeker - September 12-23 4 31 Sep 23, 2013 12:29PM  
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KENNETH BONERT's work has appeared in McSweeney's 25, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. A former journalist, his work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. Born in South Africa, he is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants.
More about Kenneth Bonert...

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