Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Here's where I ended up. I apologize for any spoilers that may have inadvertently remained.
As England is dipping its toe into WWII, two young women meet and become best friends. Nevermind that they are complete opposites, some people just fit together and this is how it is with Maggie and Queenie (aka Verity). They end up serving the British war effort: Maggie flying planes and Queenie a spy with a specialty for extracting information.
When their plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France, Queenie is captured and Maggie is feared dead.
The story begins through the pen of Queenie, tortured by Nazis, held prisoner and forced to trade her life for the story of how she ended up in France. Her confession, written on various scraps of paper and translated for Gestapo intelligence, journals how she and Maggie met and became friends. With Maggie's love of flying and incredible aptitude for airplane mechanics and Queenie's overt confidence forging their tight bond, they grow close as sisters. All of this backstory makes her confession as torturous for the reader as the account of Queenie's treatment by the Nazis — especially since she believes Maggie sacrificed her life to make sure her best friend got out of the plane safely. That is, if Queenie is to believe the Gestapo's wreckage pictures.
Wein's writing is authentic and sincere, and the history, particularly female involvement in the Royal Air Force (RAF), is clearly well researched. She captures the spirit of the 40s without dipping to cliche or sap. In her story, women are strong, even when they are timid. They fiercely defend love, willing to sacrifice their hearts for honor.
This is powerful stuff, but it's the delivery that catches you off guard. There was much buzz around the emotional impact of this book, and that kind of expectation setting often sabotages me. So I was cautious, waiting for the brutal stab to the heart, almost daring the characters to go ahead, TRY to make me cry. Truth is, I tend to judge the height of the pedestal a book is placed upon based on the tears shed while reading, so I couldn't help but wonder: would VERITY rank as high as WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, LOVELY BONES, WINTER GIRLS (actually, my list goes on for a while, so I'll stop there). And as I'd recently read BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, and the time period was the same, I couldn't help but compare the two.
But truly, you can't. Yes, they share a war, and their heroines are victims of brutal regimes, but the emotions come from completely different places. BSOG makes you appreciate even the simplest of freedoms. VERITY makes you think about just how much you'd give up to save someone you loved, even if that means shredding your own soul.
For 15 and up. Tough subject, amazing read. Highly recommended.