By – October 7, 2013

This pow­er­ful nov­el tells how a hard-dri­ving moth­er tough­ens her son up to fight his way out of pover­ty in South Africa. A third-gen­er­a­tion South African Jew, the author has pro­duced an absorb­ing first novel.

To escape the Holo­caust, a poor Lithuan­ian Jew­ish fam­i­ly migrates to South Africa. Moth­er has already been the vic­tim of a pogrom which left her hor­ri­bly dis­fig­ured. Father repairs clocks. The Jew­ish colony, poor, is intim­i­dat­ed. But not red-head­ed Isaac, the family’s young­est. Wild, uncon­trol­lable, he is expelled from one school after anoth­er. The sto­ry tells of Isaac’s love affair with a young gen­tile stu­dent, daugh­ter of a social­ly dis­tin­guished family.

Hitler is on the move in Europe and Isaac’s moth­er is engaged in a bat­tle famil­iar to many Amer­i­can Jews — rais­ing bribe mon­ey and fight­ing immi­gra­tion restric­tions to res­cue en­dangered rel­a­tives. Each chap­ter brings Isaac a new prob­lem — an attack by a South African Nazi, a rumor at work that he is gay, a charge that he has stolen the cash­box. Every­thing goes wrong. This steady stream of vio­lence seems to be laid on too thick. But final­ly Isaac decides that he is try­ing hope­less­ly to build a life in an econ­o­my that rejects Jews.

Mr. Bonert’s spe­cial charm is the lan­guage in which he has writ­ten this book. Mak­ing one’s way through the mix­ture of Eng­lish, Afrikaans, Zulu, and Yid­dish, the read­er has the sense of vis­it­ing a for­eign country.

This is strong stuff, not the best bar mitz­vah or sick-friend gift. But, full as it is with Jew­ish and world his­to­ry, per­son­al tur­moil and moral ques­tions, it presents an excit­ing for­mat for high schools, reli­gious schools, and book clubs.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Final­ist Ken­neth Bonert


Read Elise Coop­er’s inter­view with Ken­neth Bon­ert for JBC here.

Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

Discussion Questions

1. Gitelle is the main char­ac­ter in the pro­logue, but as the nov­el con­tin­ues, Isaac becomes the focus. How does Gitelle, Isaac’s moth­er, main­tain a cen­tral role? Is this sto­ry hers or Isaac’s?

2. Reli­gion pro­vides mean­ing in the Hel­ger fam­i­ly. What does the Jew­ish faith mean to Gitelle, Abel, Isaac, and Riv­e­ly? How are they the same? Dif­fer­ent? Whose faith changes the most? Why?

3. Bon­ert touch­es upon the sub­ject of bul­ly­ing when Isaac enters school. Isaac is called names based on his looks, his reli­gion, and his tem­per. What are the reper­cus­sions of this bul­ly­ing on Isaac as he wit­ness­es and expe­ri­ences the many facets of prej­u­dice and racism?

4. Gitelle preach­es hard work, yet she attempts to help Isaac devel­op schemes to make mon­ey. Is this con­trary to her base phi­los­o­phy? Is it okay to cir­cum­vent the law and social mores to advance one’s place in society?

5. Isaac’s yearn­ing for Yvonne Lin­hurst expos­es him to peo­ple who have, where­as he has pre­vi­ous­ly been sur­round­ed by peo­ple who have not. Isaac still pur­sues her. Why? What does this say about Isaac? What do Yvon­ne’s actions say about her? Can you think of any oth­er cou­ples in lit­er­a­ture with the same dif­fer­ences in back­ground? How do Isaac and Yvonne com­pare to these models?

6. Through spe­cif­ic events, such as Isaac’s con­fronta­tion with Mag­nus Ober­holz­er and the rise of pow­ers before the war, the author empha­sizes the need peo­ple and coun­tries feel for supe­ri­or­i­ty: The only thing that real­ly counts in this world is the fist.” How does this phi­los­o­phy influ­ence Isaac and his deci­sions? Is this phi­los­o­phy still applied today? Explain.

7. Isaac Hel­ger is the nov­el­’s pro­tag­o­nist, but some read­ers will not iden­ti­fy with or like Isaac. Do Isaac’s flaws and deci­sions affect your sym­pa­thy for him? Do we need to like a pro­tag­o­nist for a nov­el to be suc­cess­ful? Can you think of oth­er flawed or unlik­able heroes” in lit­er­a­ture? How does Isaac compare?

8. Prej­u­dice cre­ates tense moments for Isaac. What role does racial ten­sion play in his devel­op­ment? How do Isaac’s views on race com­pare to what they would have been if he had remained in Lithua­nia? Is this ironic?

9. The esca­la­tion toward WWII pro­vides a cat­a­lyst for many of the char­ac­ters’ deci­sions, espe­cial­ly Isaac, Hugo, and Gitelle. What ten­sion is the author cre­at­ing through this devel­op­ment? Is it suc­cess­ful? This ten­sion about race not only reflects in the back­drop of the approach­ing war but also in char­ac­ters such as Mag­nus Ober­holz­er. Why does Mag­nus despise Isaac so much? Is Isaac to blame for any of this hatred?

10. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the title, espe­cial­ly as it relates to the life of Isaac Helger?

11. The author weaves his­to­ry through­out the nov­el. Dis­cuss some of the names, places, and doc­u­ments, such as Hert­zog, Lithua­nia, and the Jager Report. How do they add to the nov­el? How do these ref­er­ences pro­vide a cat­a­lyst for the nar­ra­tive and characterization?

12. Just like Gitelle, Avrom blames Isaac for what has hap­pened. Is Avrom to blame? Why or why not? What are the reper­cus­sions for each char­ac­ter’s decep­tion? What does each char­ac­ter learn?

13. We learn that Doorn­fontein means foun­tain of thorns.” Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of this mean­ing, espe­cial­ly regard­ing the mem­bers of the Hel­ger fam­i­ly: Isaac, Gitelle, Abel, Rively.

14. Riv­e­ly decides to keep the truth about the sto­ry of the rest of the fam­i­ly in Dusat from Isaac. Is this the right deci­sion? Why or why not?

15. From Isaac, Mame, Abel, and Riv­e­ly, what does the read­er learn about lessons from the past and how to apply them to the future? There always seems to be a dichoto­my to life. Is the focus on one bet­ter than the oth­er? Is a bal­ance need­ed to be main­tained between the two?

16. How did your per­cep­tion of South Africa’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in WWII change over the course of read­ing ? And how did your per­cep­tion of how South Africa’s cit­i­zens were affect­ed by the war change?

The Lion Seek­er

17. Bon­ert’s com­ing-of-age nov­el cap­tures the read­er because of its his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, diverse char­ac­ters, and nar­ra­tive through the lives of immi­grants. What oth­er nov­els have intrigued read­ers in this same man­ner? How does use or upend these nar­ra­tive tra­di­tions? How does it com­pare to oth­er Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture: Saul Bel­low, Philip Roth, Bernard Mala­mud, Cyn­thia Ozick, Budd Schul­berg, Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, and others?

The Lion Seeker