The Lion Seeker

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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 mother’s question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will ...

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The Lion Seeker

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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 mother’s question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburg’s poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?

Isaac’s mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s history, bound up with Europe’s but inflected with its own accents—Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English—begins to unravel. Isaac’s vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaac’s fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mother’s secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.

A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught — hearts open and wrecked — between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.

Runner-up for the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Young Jewish émigré Isaac Helger lives with his mother in the inner city of Johannesburg, amidst a near-cacophony of languages: Yiddish, Afrikaans, English, Zulu. As the de facto breadwinner of his family, Isaac faces an intimidating challenge: How can he manage to rescue all their cousins and nephews from Lithuania before Hitler can get his hands on them? Kenneth Bonert's debut novel The Lion Seeker takes us into the mind and life of a scheming high school dropout gaining insights and struggling with choices in the unforgiving crucible of history.

Publishers Weekly
“A Stupid or a Clever, a lion or a lamb”: this refrain follows Isaac Helger as he comes of age in South Africa in the ’20s and ’30s. Both of Isaac’s immigrant Jewish parents suffered in anti-Semitic Europe, but they’ve learned opposite lessons from their respective ordeals. His iron-willed, mysteriously scarred mother teaches him to put himself first, to take rather than give—because if given the chance, anyone else would do the same. But his father favors a life of peaceful labor, preferring happiness to materialism. Which legacy will Isaac choose as he tries to strike it rich, woo an upper-class “goy” girl, and retaliate against anti-Semites? Bonert’s minorities are not blameless victims: unable to see the similarity between the persecution of Jews and blacks, Isaac is a bigot, too. When Hitler’s onslaught begins, endangering the Helgers’ Lithuanian relatives, Isaac must decide which comes first: his own dreams or the lives of others. His is a story of fighting and deciding what’s worth fighting for, of cultivating a strength that doesn’t erase empathy. Bonert’s debut is lengthy, but the pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"What a rare and splendid achievement this novel is—emotionally gripping, intellectually challenging, deftly plotted, skillfully composed, and vibrantly alive with the images and sounds and textures and human flurry of another time and place. I was dazzled. And I was moved."
—Tim O’Brien

"[Isaac's] is a story of fighting and deciding what's worth fighting for, of cultivating a strength that doesn't erase empathy. . . The pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film."
Publishers Weekly

"[The Lion Seeker] will grab readers everywhere with the story of the struggling refugees in a new country, the horror they escaped from, and the guilt about those left behind, with secrets not revealed until the very end. . . The immigrant family struggle comes across as universal, whether concerning radicals or the ultra-Orthodox. . . A great choice for book-group discussion."

"South African-born Canadian writer Bonert serves up a latter-day Exodus in this debut novel."
Kirkus Reviews

"Kenneth Bonert’s raw and ambitious novel of working-class Jewish life in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s...[an] ambitious and unruly novel."
Moment Magazine

"Here is the South African novel I've been waiting for. Kenneth Bonert tells it true, not safe. His protagonist is worthy of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the South Africa he gives us vivid, raw, dangerous, shot through with moral complexity."
—Lynn Freed, author of House of Women and The Servants' Quarters

"The Lion Seeker is a powerful and thoroughly engrossing novel, grand in scope, richly imagined, full of dramatic incident, and crafted in a prose that is by turns roughhewn and lyrical. To read it is to be reminded how great a great novel can be."
—David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World and Natasha: And Other Stories

"A remarkably assured debut, The Lion Seeker is a riveting, lyrical, and profound journey towards the intersection of private lives and public destinies. Kenneth Bonert has all the makings of a major novelist."
—Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times

"The Lion Seeker is no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle-fight raw. A historical novel that feels desperately current; a Rosenburg and Juliet love story shorn of all sentiment; a stock-taking of human brutality and its flip side, our capacity to reach beyond our limitations and be better, all rendered in prose so expert, so fine honed that it belies the adjective ‘debut.’ It joins classics like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart in the canon, and renders the South African experience universal. A first-round knock-out for Kenneth Bonert."
—Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa

"This powerful novel begins with a mystery that propels its characters through their difficult lives in prewar South Africa and haunts their actions until a dramatic and searing climax based on the Holocaust in Lithuania. The Lion Seeker is vivid and illuminating, astonishing in its range and toughness, and simultaneously an expression of love and regret for all that has been lost."
—Antanas Sileika, author of Underground and Woman in Bronze and Director of the Humber School for Writers

Praise from abroad for The Lion Seeker:

"An emotional tour de force that plumbs the depths of human hope, fear, guilt, and rage, and bears all the hallmarks of a masterwork."
Ballast (Canada)

"A titanic novel. . . An epic, a vast story about a rarefied subject: the community of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated to South Africa before World War II. . . Mazel tov, Kenneth Bonert, you have written a blockbuster of a book."
Toronto Star (Canada)

"Bonert's prose is sharp and masterful, clipping along at a breathless pace while still managing to wow us with imagery, clever turns of phrase and believable dialogue peppered with several languages."
Globe and Mail (Canada)

"The Lion Seeker is astonishingly mature, admirably incautious. It moves with the sleight-of-hand of the born artist, ramping up for naked tugs at the heart. . . It's visually and thematically sweeping, rich with diverse personalities, packed with tender waves and roiling crests of love, loss, hope, hatred. It casts its bit players (even a final-act dog) as deftly as its stars. . . This novel, quite apart from what it might become, remains completely and thrillingly itself."
National Post (Canada)

"If not for the setting-South Africa in the 1930s and '40s-the novel's hapless protagonist could have been plucked from the doom-laden pages of Thomas Hardy. . . The Lion Seeker, like its 19th-century literary forebears, is larded with enough plot twists, reversals of fortune, and revelations of family secrets to keep many readers engrossed."
Quill & Quire (Canada)

Library Journal
Set in Johannesburg between the World Wars, this coming-of-age story tells of a Jewish immigrant boy from Lithuania facing adversity with determination and sometimes nothing more. Isaac Helger grows up in a racially stratified society in which he is sometimes victim and sometimes perpetrator. His family is plagued by memories, secrets, and the poverty that his scarred mother is resolved to escape in order to return to Lithuania and rescue her sisters just as Hitler rises to power. Bringing readers to identify with such a fiercely flawed main character who never fails to get into trouble as he approaches manhood takes skill, and Bonert largely succeeds, proving to be an author to watch. The dialog's amalgam of languages—everything from Yiddish to Afrikaans and from African dialects to English—adds an interesting flavor to a powerful debut. VERDICT The length and use of the vernacular may be difficult for some readers, but Bonert's book is worth the effort. For readers interested in Jewish or African fiction or literary, multicultural fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 4/29/13.]—Gwen Vredevoogd, Marymount Univ. Libs., Arlington, VA
Kirkus Reviews
South African–born Canadian writer Bonert serves up a latter-day Exodus in this debut novel. "A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem." The dead never return from the grave. So says a hearse driver, knowingly, at the outset of Bonert's saga, set in a "pinprick of [a] village" somewhere in Lithuania. The horizon expands almost incomprehensibly when a Jewish family makes its way from the shtetl to a rough but very different South African township, where immigrants from Eastern Europe and South Asia, in order to avoid persecution, become the persecutors themselves. Isaac Helger--each element of his name, each element of every name, has meaning--is a born troublemaker, always pushing and testing, always just shy of landing in the grave or in prison himself. The consummate outsider, he nonetheless has no difficulty lording it over the Zulu workers alongside whom he toils. "They a bunch of tsotsis and gunovim, man," grumbles Isaac--which raises the modest caveat that it's helpful to have some knowledge of Zulu, Afrikaans and Yiddish to appreciate a book that were it a film would come with subtitles. Bonert plays with conventions: Here the novel is a generational saga along the lines of Roots or, yes, a Uris novel, while there it assumes the contours of a cross-class love story, with a shiksa to die for adding to Isaac's deep-in-the-bone angst. And still farther on, it becomes something of a moral fable as Isaac, ever more aware of what is happening to the Jewish people back in Europe, slowly awakens to the terrors of the apartheid system whose noose is tightening around him. He is also happily precise with a phrase, an image: "He prayed as he always did, concentrating on each word as if it were the smallest broken cog in a tiny wristwatch." Too long by a hundred pages, but a promising first step.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547898049
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/15/2013
  • Pages: 576
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt

Gitelle: A Prologue
Whatever crouched beyond the lakes and forests of her green life was unseeable as night. She had never studied a map till it came time to leave forever and then her fingertips traced ceaselessly over what her mind could not picture. The mysteries beat in her like a second heart. The pinprick of her village lay closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia than she’d ever known; the whole country was but a slither in a howling world. There were salt oceans, desert kingdoms. She had the words and the colours on the map but nothing more.
   When they stopped at the cemetery on the way out, the carriage driver Nachman said, —A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem. Dead ones never come back from the grave. The old saying meant what’s done is done but was turned upside down in his wry mouth: here it was the living who would never come back to these graves at the far end of Milner Gass, near the spring and Yoffe’s mill, flashes of the lake silver through the dark trees.
   A closed sky kept spitting and everyone wore galoshes against the mud. The peeling birches creaked and dripped; candle flames twitched and fluttered. Her daughter, good girl, stood nicely beside her but Isaac on the other side kept squirming against her right hand bunched in his little jacket. This was a boy who hadn’t stopped jerking and kicking from the second he came out of her with thick hair gleaming like fresh-skinned carrots and his biting mouth screaming enough for twins. Almost five now, about to travel across the earth to meet the father he’d never seen.
   Gitelle made them look at and put pebbles on the gravestones of their grandmother and then all their great-grandparents. That was enough: another five centuries or more of buried Jewish bones spread away from them beneath the hissing branches. She adjusted her veil and turned back to face the living – her tutte Zalman Moskevitch, her sisters, the nieces and the husbands. Isaac wriggled free like a cat and ran off. She didn’t bother shouting: the boy needed a leash not more words, hoarse or otherwise. Some of his aunties caught him. Another two of them came up to her. Trudel-Sora hoisted Rively onto her hip and went away while Orli held out her arms. Youngest of the sisters, Orli was plump in the lips and hips and smoothly olive skinned; her black eyes, now liquidly gleaming, matched her thick long hair. She hugged Gitelle close, groaning, and said, I think you’re the first one ever who didn’t need a hanky on her leaving day.
   Are you surprised?
   Of course not.
   Gitelle nodded. How strange tears would be today, after everything. All the years spent gagging on the taste of her breath against the shame of the veil, her words dribbling from her like spatter from an overbubbling pot – such sorrows, encompassed by this place, should not include her leaving too. Never that.
   What are you thinking of?
   The future, said Gitelle. The living. My husband. What else is there to think of?
   Orli smiled: her teeth unpeeled were white as river stones and brilliant in her olive face. Sister, not everyone’s as strong as a tree stump.
   Is that what I’m supposed to be now?
   It’s what you always have.
   She had threaded her warm soft arm through Gitelle’s and pulled it close as they walked back though the gravestones. A sodden squirrel stood up to stare at them, quivering. Gitelle said: Listen. If I can do this so can you. Don’t waste time. Be brave. Don’t ever stop trying. I was twenty-seven before I met my Abel. They said with the way I am such a thing could never happen. And after we had Rively, you think he wanted to go? Men are lazy as stones. I had to nag so much I nearly twisted my own head into craziness – borrow the money, get moving, wake up. And how many years now it’s taken him, drip drip drip, to send back just enough for our tickets . . . But see, here I am, I don’t complain. Today it’s my turn, my leaving day. You understand what I’m telling you, Orli? Remember this day. Don’t ever give in. Don’t ever go slack. Your leaving day will come sooner than you think. All of yours will. It’s the only way we’ll ever see each other again, and we will. We have to.
   Orli was drying her cheeks with her free hand. But it was always fated, she said. You and Abel. Like everything.
   Gitelle snorted, rippling the line of the veil.
   What? There is fate. You two prove it.
   Prove what exactly?
   How The Name makes His perfect matches for us, in every generation of souls. A heart for a heart, even a wound for a wound. Every shoe must have its foot.
   Gitelle was silent, felt her sister’s eyes on her face.
   Forgive me, said Orli. Foot and shoe. I didn’t mean—
   Ah Orli, said Gitelle, lisping into the cloth. You think that’s what bothers me? My dear sister, you need to forget all that romantic trash if you’re ever going to grow up. Now’s the time to start.
   Outside the cemetery the horse cropped at wet weeds with a stretched neck; Nachman had his collar up and his chin on his chest. There was a wait to find Isaac who’d gotten loose again and was giggling somewhere off in the lindens on the opposite side. First would come the station at Obeliai, then a train to Libau on the coast. She had packed goose feather pillows for the freighter’s hard benches and plenty of lemons because lemons are the cure for seasickness: advice from the ones who’d gone before. Africa. She wondered what an ocean will be.
In Southampton on England’s coast they boarded a Union Castle liner with a lavender hull and two fat smokestacks. It took twenty days to reach the bottom tip of the pistol-shaped African continent and on every one of them Isaac found ways to raid the upper decks of first class, returning to steerage with pockets stuffed with glazed tarts and fresh cheeses and Swiss chocolate, with strange and impossibly sweet fruits Gitelle had never seen before. When he wasn’t raiding he fought other boys or kicked the shins of the duty officers. His masterpiece was starting a fire in a life raft with a flare gun. The crew called him Devil Boy and the captain almost had him confined. They didn’t understand it was only that he was born with a little more kaych in him than others, a little extra life energy bubbling and frothing inside like hot milk to get out. When she wiped his face in bed every night with a damp cloth she got him to keep still by promising him the freckles were coming off, and every morning he’d run excited to the mirror to verify her claims.
   Cape Town was on a bay raked by salt winds, its streets laced over the roots of a flathead mountain. Colours burned the air: blood flowers, thorny eruptions of vermilion, limeyellow smears on the rocks like veins of fresh paint. The red sun had sandpaper beams. She saw human beings burned the colour of coal or darkbrewed tea or cured leather; she smelled their alien sweat and their tangy cooking, heard the mad bibbering of their manifold tongues. A strange music that made her heart sag in the fear of this shattering place. But later she saw pretty whitewashed houses in a row near the waterfront, with palm trees in tranquil garden squares, and she dared hope that Abel had secured them similar lodgings.
   Johannesburg was two hot dry days to the north by train, through country that stunned her like a blow: the cactus hills, the khaki desolation of the plains, the distant hazy sky pierced by that red sun, a madman’s glowering eyeball.
   Her husband was the same but he was swaddled by grime, like a gem wrapped in dirty rags. He lived in a squalid cottage in the self-made Jewish ghetto along Beit Street in the inner-city neighbourhood of Doornfontein. Here it was as if a poor Lithuanian village had torn itself up from the cool forestlands of the north to root again in the baking dust of the deepest south. There were three small rooms behind his workshop, with a surly Black woman living in a tin hut out back. Gitelle gave herself over to tenderness with her beloved for only a day, no more. His long fingers and his gentle eyes. Then:
   What do you need her for?
   Everybody has one, a shiksa girl. It’s the way here. People even poorer than us have them.
   What does she do?
   Do? She cleans, she cooks.
   Is that what she calls it.
   She fired her that afternoon and set to work cleaning out the pigsty of what Abel Helger’s life had become without her, the poor beautiful man overwhelmed by the accretion of filth that is always the creeping growth of negligence. The children helped her boil water and scrub the floors and walls, even the cracked concrete of the tiny backyard. They emptied the useless Bantu woman’s room (she had taken only what she could carry for her long journey home) and made a kerosene bonfire out of the reeking blanket and stained overalls, tossing onto it strange bottles and totems, things that looked like shrivelled insects which Gitelle warned the children away from and handled with just the extended fingertips of one gloved hand, her nose crimped above her dark veil.
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Kenneth Bonert, Author of The Lion Seeker

Why did you choose this story to tell?

I'm not sure I chose it as much as it chose me. It's a story that has lived in my blood and haunted my thoughts for as long as I can remember. My ancestors moved from a tiny village in Lithuania to make new lives in faraway Africa -- how strange and dazzling the dry, gritty plains must have been to them after the soft pine forests of the north. I always wanted to capture the drama of that great familial movement with a book that would give voice to all that I imagined it contained: achievement and heartbreak, love and cruelty, the melancholy of separation and joy of arrival.

In the writing of The Lion Seeker I brought to life the Helger family, and traced their African struggles and the fate of the village they left behind. Isaac Helger is the book's tough centre. He burns with a raw, primal ambition and once I had found his voice the story surged ahead under my fingers. When readers tell me that they were up reading the book till two in the morning, it pleases but doesn't surprise me since I found the story just as compelling when I wrote the first draft, needing to know what happens next to struggling Isaac in the harsh country of my birth at a brutal time in its history.

Can you talk about the connection between your own background and the novel?

I grew up in Johannesburg, ensconced in the Jewish community (Jewish schools, Jewish friends, Jewish neighbours). My Bohbee - grandmother - lived at home with us and spoke only Yiddish. Sitting with her in the garden under the hot African sun, I would listen to her stories of the village of Dusat in the old country, a place her spirit never seemed to have left. It was a fairy-tale village to me, with a lake that magically became white and solid enough to walk on, a forest full of picture-card Christmas trees, enormous stallions, home-baked bread smeared with butter from a beloved cow. Researching this book was a way for me to find out how much truth there was in what she had told me. Similarly, this novel is also about the gulf between our dreams and lofty illusions and the harshness, the chintzy vulgarity, of the real world. The backdrop to our protected lives was of course an infamous regime of racial oppression. History and politics always press at the garden walls, no matter how high, just as they can warp the contours of a life. This is a novel that is also about a young man learning, through his own, to recognize the suffering of others.

I had two uncles who work in the auto industry. The family name is still on a company that one of them founded. He used to visit my grandmother every Sunday. He was a tough and fascinating character to me, a man who dropped out of school early to fight in the Second World War, who had earned his living with his hands in workshops and scrapyards before starting up an auto body shop of his own. A man who'd lived a life with its share of violence and struggle. He exemplified the kind of characters that I wanted to capture in literature for the first time. Rough-hewn, plain-speaking South African Jews, a type of Jewish character I had not seen depicted before. Above all, I wanted to capture the way that people really speak, the mashup of slang and other languages, the dirty music of Johannesburg streets.

Who or what is "The Lion Seeker"?

I leave it to the reader to find their own answer to this question. For me it has to do with why we as human beings do the things that we do, to ourselves and each other; it has to do with that force which animates the joyous tragedy of this thing we call life. There is one strange, almost mystical story told by a key character near the middle of the novel; it's about an old desert lion stalking a camp fire. Something about that story is connected to the heart of this question, but to try and put it into words would be to rob the reader of the chance to make their own discovery. Such unlayerings of subtler meanings is, for me, one of the sweeter pleasures of reading a serious novel.

Do you see The Lion Seeker as fitting into a particular literary tradition?

I think my literary ideal is to tell an absorbing, action-filled story without losing the depth of insight and poetic expression of serious fiction. The Lion Seeker is, therefore, a novel that draws on classical storytelling as its structure, but looks to modernism for its themes and prose. In other words, I love both Tolstoy and Joyce for different reasons, but just as much.

Of course The Lion Seeker could also be categorized as a Jewish novel or a South African novel, and it certainly draws on both of those great lineages. In storied Jewish-American writers such as Ozick, Malamud, Roth and Bellow, I found examples of how literature could be made from the people that made me, the community I grew up in. (Especially Roth with his relentless focus on the Jews of Newark.)

As for South African fiction, it has, for a long time, been concerned with the horrors of apartheid. That burning political issue left little cultural space for other kinds of stories. Now that apartheid has thankfully passed into oblivion, there is more room, I think, to tell the story of the South African Jews, and I've gone back to their first generation in South Africa with this debut novel. To be a white Jew in black Africa is fascinating territory to explore, and it's where my next work continues to take me.

Who have you discovered lately?

I read and reread the masters, mostly, nowadays - Nabokov, Hemingway, Austen, and the like. But I also make a point of regularly and methodically exposing myself to new writers, writers I've never heard of before. Most of these works, I end up not finishing; but some are lovely discoveries to make and to learn from. Three writers that occur to me in this latter list are: Tom Rachman with The Imperfectionists, which was a zippy 2010 book full of wit and cunning; Matt Sundell who had a story in the Paris Review called "Toast" that makes me keep an eye out for his name; and Wells Tower, whose 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was a recommendation from a bookstore - my favourite places! - -that I've much enjoyed.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2015

    Wrong pricing

    Check cost

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2014

    The Lion Seeker

    Excellent book. Could picture characters and setting. The history informative and moving.
    Well written - Well done!
    Thank you

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