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"QUIET HERO: Secrets From My Father's Past," by Rita Cosby, Threshold Editions, 296 pages, $26 (nf)

There's a story behind every scar, and it's human nature to ask about them.

As a young girl, Rita Cosby is curious about the potholes and jagged lines in her father's skin. She realizes that most dads don't have scars like that. After asking how he got them, the vague response makes it clear that the subject is off-limits. For decades, she doesn't bring it up again, and neither does he.

"Quiet Hero" is the true story of one daughter's journey to understand her father. As Rita's search resurrects the darker times of her father's life in the Polish Resistance, she discovers a man whose courage in the past made him a hero in the fight for freedom. She also realizes that those same experiences left him emotionless and detached.

Throughout Rita's childhood, her father's scars remain a mystery. All she's heard are a few nondescript sentences about his flight from a crumbled Poland at the end of World War II. As a young girl, she can't help but notice that his eyes often seem distant. It's difficult for her to understand him, and for most of her life, she doesn't.

As Rita reaches her teenage years, her father announces that he wants to leave their family. He gives her a matter-of-fact explanation as she stands in front of the bathroom mirror.

She stops putting on her makeup, and screams at him for a better answer, but his response is just as cold as his previous attempt to explain.

In shock, she just stares at his face in the mirror. With that, her father walks out the door and out of her life.

His decision creates a chasm in their relationship that continues to widen throughout Rita's life, leaving her angry with a father who seems heartless. She wonders why he doesn't seem to care about her.

After her mother's death, Rita eventually feels ready to look through the old belongings from their home.

Among them, she finds a tattered suitcase and an ex-prisoner of war card that sends her on a search for answers. At this point, she is a grown woman and a journalist accustomed to asking difficult questions.

However, interviewing her father may prove far more challenging than any of the interviews she's done with world leaders and controversial figures.

Her father will have to decide whether to return to the memories that still haunt him, or avoid them and walk away from Rita. She attempts to open his past, but she is unsure of how much he will share.

As her father begins to tell her about a few terrorizing images he saw as a boy in devastated Warsaw, she sees him differently. She wonders if their relationship can be built from the ashes of her father's past.

The pain of the characters and their vivid experiences are powerfully sincere. They feel emotionally raw at times, involving you the whole way.

The father's retelling of his wartime memories, from face-to-face combat to long days in a prison camp, can be both absorbing and disturbing, but they are told with a tone of honesty that reveals the atrocity of war.

Comment on this story

There is some profanity used within the context of war (and graphic descriptions), but Rita's father brings to life a chapter in World War II that some may only know through the dry, impersonal descriptions of a textbook.

The story offers a perspective through the eyes of both father and daughter, eliciting a desire to both judge and forgive, to feel appalled and then sympathetic, much like the author does, as she takes you through a journey of courage and determination.

e-mail: mlizon@desnews.com