The Night Sky
by Maria Sutton

Johnson Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-555-66446-6.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 12/05/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

The subtitle of this memoir, "One Woman's Story of Quiet Courage and Love" (with jacket copy alluding to passion, misguided love and Dachau) led to me expect a tense memoir of star-crossed lovers during World War II. Instead, this is the story of one woman's search for the father she never knew. Once I realized that, I went back and reread from that point of view.

Raised by her refugee parents in Colorado, Maria Sutton at thirteen overheard a conversation that indicated that the man she called Dad was not her biological father. Devastated, she set out to trace her father. Eventually she learned that he was a Polish officer captured when Germany over-ran Poland.

Her parents met in Dachau, but were only briefly at the infamous concentration camp. Both were sent to work on a farm and restaurant in a small German village. There they slept in cold rooms with scant covering, worked hard, and were well fed by the property owners—the Breitners. When the Americans took Poland, the couple went to a series of displaced persons camps, where their daughters, Krystyna and Maria, were born. The trail ended there. Julia, their mother, refused to talk about Jozef, their biological father, other than a few enigmatic comments.

In The Night Sky, Maria writes that she envisioned a dashing Polish pilot in training—handsome, courageous, and willing to sacrifice anything to get back to his family. With the advent of the Internet, Maria's search accelerated, but it took forty-three years to find him. She spent countless hours on the computer, thousands of dollars in trips to Russia, Poland, and Germany, and in overseas phone calls, stamps and mailings. Maria visited Dachau, the Ukraine valley where her mother was raised, the displaced persons centers where her parents lived, and the Breitners' farm in Starzhausen, Germany. She even hired a former KGB agent who did investigative work.

Fantasies are hard to abandon, and Maria ignored hints that Jozef was not everything she imagined. Her mother in particular didn't want her to find Jozef. After finally finding detailed information about her father, Maria experienced, of course, huge disappointment. Even though she was not going to be reunited with the father of her dreams, she now had a family beyond her parents and sister. Josef's family and that of her mother welcomed her with feasts, gifts and sightseeing tours.

Ultimately Maria learned what many adoptees do when they undertake searches for their birth parents: "I found what was missing from my life and it has made me happy and whole; although not in the way I thought it would, but it has made me stronger." Her search, she felt, was fueled not only by her infatuation with Jozef but by her own lifelong sense of being displaced, not belonging. She had always celebrated holidays with her husband's side of a large family; now she had her own "large side."

There is a happier ending to this story. Maria continued searching, this time for her mother's beloved brother, Wasyl, who had not been heard from since WWII. She found him in Pennsylvania and, in the most touching portion of The Night Sky, was able to reunite the two.

The one flaw in this memoir, to me, is that it lacks the sense of urgency and tension I had expected. Except for a few passages, the reader is always aware that they are being told about an experience rather than living it. Expecting Julia's story, I found The Night Sky is Maria's story. It's hard to know which woman is the "woman of courage" referred to on the front cover. Each, in her own way, is courageous.

Maria Sutton came from Germany to the Denver area in 1951 at the age of three. She earned the Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and Finance from the University of Colorado and has also attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Many of her research skills came from her years as a Federal investigator.

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