The Lion Seeker, a novel, by Kenneth Bonert

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The Lion Seeker

by Kenneth Bonert

Kenneth Bonert's debut novel tells the story of Isaac Helger, a feisty, redheaded Lithuanian Jewish boy, as he grows up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the tense period before World War II. During these formative years, Isaac experiences the dichotomies of life: love and hate, freedom and oppression, weakness and power, poverty and wealth, deception and truth. As he struggles to become a man and to find connection, he chafes at the secret past his mother keeps hidden—a mystery that forces him to question his moral code, his life's purpose, and many of the people around him. With enthralling history as a powerful background, this unforgettable narrative weaves the concerns of its characters into the great canvas of world events, creating a rich tapestry of life that readers will find captivating.

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. Both parents, Gitelle in her emphatic admonitions and Abel in his subtle snippets, advise their children. Abel counsels Rively when she questions him about life, love, and God: "When my fingers are talking for me in my work then my heart is quiet, and my head, and that's when I sometimes can hear Him whispering. It's written that it's this whisper of God that sustains the world...You only have to have a good heart and to do what you love to do with a good heart, that's all you need in this world" (26). Is finding happiness this simple? How many characters appear to discover this peace: Abel, Isaac, Gitelle, Hugo, Avrom, Rively, Yvonne, Oberholzer? How does Gitelle's recurring advice differ, especially for Isaac?
  3. 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?
  4. Gitelle constantly reminds Isaac that life is limitless for those who are Clever but miserable for those who are Stupid. How well does she follow her own advice? How well does Isaac learn? Is this advice just for Isaac? Does she give it to Rively, too? Or does it serve another purpose? Avrom later tells Isaac: "Be a lion or be a mare—it comes down to our decision." How is his advice similar? Different?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. Hugo Bleznick tells Isaac that even when things are going well, there is always "the twist." Often characters have a flaw, an Achilles' heel that prevents them from reaching their goals or true potential. What is Hugo's flaw? What about Abel, Mame, Avrom, and Isaac?
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. "‘I'm your father, look here at me. You need to learn so you can choose your work. The right work for your own soul.' Gitelle says, ‘A soul doesn't pay any rent, Abel. Let him go in business, this is what he wants.' Abel angles at her. ‘Him or you?'" Do you agree with Abel when he questions Gitelle's motives? Why? Does Isaac admire his father? Does Isaac become more like his father at any point in the novel?
  13. 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?
  14. What is the significance of the title, especially as it relates to the life of Isaac Helger?
  15. 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?
  16. Gitelle has secrets. Avrom has secrets. Isaac learns to keep secrets. What does Avrom finally understand? What lesson does Isaac learn? How does Rively continue this family trend?
  17. 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?
  18. 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.
  19. 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?
  20. 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?
  21. How did your perception of South Africa's participation in WWII change over the course of reading The Lion Seeker? And how did your perception of how South Africa's citizens were affected by the war change?
  22. 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 The Lion Seeker 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?

<i>The Lion Seeker</i> book jacket

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