The best books about America’s toughest time: life in the dirty thirties

Who am I?

I’m a writer and history buff who loves to make fiction out of facts. For me, the best stories are imagined out of truths we have all lived, real places that are mapped in our memories, real people whose names conjure events, past times that are prelude to our own. I like to read books built on plots and puzzles, so I write mysteries. I love books about real people, so I write biographical novels bent around the secret selves of people we only thought we knew: Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe. 

I wrote...

The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker

By Susan Wittig Albert,

Book cover of The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker

What is my book about?

It’s Labor Day weekend, 1935, and the Darling Dahlias―the garden club in little Darling, Alabama―are trying to keep their cool at the end of a sizzling summer. This isn’t easy, though, since there’s a firebug on the loose in Darling. A dangerous hurricane is poised offshore and a hurricane of a different sort is making a whirlwind campaign stop: the much-loved-much-hated senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long, whom President Roosevelt calls the “most dangerous man in America.”

The people of Darling face the challenges of the Great Depression with courage and grace, reminding us that friends offer the best of themselves to each other, community is what holds us together, and even when life seems too hot to handle, there’s always hope.

The books I picked & why

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To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

What I love about this novel is the transparent honesty of the children and the unshakeable solidity of their father, who provides a moral compass for their sleepy Alabama town in the depths of the hardest times anybody can remember. The book is filled with poignant details of place and time, and the dialogue is pitch perfect. If you haven’t read Mockingbird lately, please do. It’s the best first stop on a journey through the 1930s. Favorite quote: “Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

All the King's Men

By Robert Penn Warren,

Book cover of All the King's Men

Why this book?

The early ‘30s were marked by the rise of Huey P. Long, Louisiana’s populist governor, senator, and cult leader whom FDR called “the most dangerous man in America.” In All the King’s Men, the character of Willie Stark is based on Long and gives us a richly detailed look into the labyrinthine politics of the times. Fiction, but painfully true, not just to Long and the ways he corrupted decent people but to our own political times, as well. Favorite quote: “Politics is a matter of choices, and a man doesn't set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice. You know that. You've made a choice, and you know how much it cost you. There is always a price.”

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

By Timothy Egan,

Book cover of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Why this book?

I love Timothy Egan’s book for its clear-eyed and deeply compassionate look into the Dirty Thirties. Egan tells the stories of the people who survived the Dust Bowl: mothers sweeping the house with a shovel; fathers trying to rescue their livestock from the smothering soil drifts; children with dust pneumonia. This is a book about the way human greed and recklessness destroyed an abundant nature—a lesson for the climate changes we are facing. Favorite quote: “For all the horror, the land was not without its magic... the sky was open and embracing, the breeze only a soft whisper... Robin's egg blue was the color of mornings without fear. At night, you could see the stars behind the stars. Infinity was never an abstraction on the High Plains.”

Since Yesterday: The 1930's in America, September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939

By Frederick Lewis Allen,

Book cover of Since Yesterday: The 1930's in America, September 3, 1929 to September 3, 1939

Why this book?

I’m a huge fan of books that are packed with compelling details. In Since Yesterday, Frederick Allen covers everything about the Thirties, from fashion to food to politics, music, and movies—and everything in between. A powerful story, sometimes dark but rich with odd little treasures that will make you smile. I especially like the searchable digital edition. Example quote: “Dance orchestras were blaring ‘The Music Goes ’Round and ’Round.’ Major Bowes was the current radio sensation, so warmly did he inquire into the life histories of the yodelers and jews-harp-players on his Amateur Hour. At the movie houses Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing nimbly in ‘Follow the Fleet.’ Seven-year-old Shirley Temple was becoming the rising star of Hollywood.”

Joy of Cooking 1931

By Irma S. Rombauer,

Book cover of Joy of Cooking 1931

Why this book?

Food history—why and how and what we eat—is one of my favorite topics. The first edition of Irma Rambauer’s The Joy of Cooking inspired 1930s American cooks to make an eight layer cake, a celery aspic, a chicken bisque, cinnamon toast, shrimp wiggle, and green peppers filled with macaroni. Recently widowed, Rombauer self-published the book to support her family—and thereby became a heroine for 1930s homemakers. Her Cheese Custard Pie, so far as I know, is the first recipe for quiche in an American cookbook. It is introduced with these memorable words: “In Switzerland we had a vile tempered cook named Marguerite” whose quiche varied with “her moods and her supply of cheese.” (I love recipes that tell us something about the cook.)

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the South, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Plains?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the South, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Plains.

The South Explore 98 books about the South
The Dust Bowl Explore 10 books about the Dust Bowl
The Great Plains Explore 15 books about the Great Plains

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Anne Frank, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and One of Us if you like this list.