The best books of surprising stories about the Great Depression

The Books I Picked & Why

Joe Dew: A Glorious Life

By Elaine Briggs

Joe Dew: A Glorious Life

Why this book?

I was especially interested in the Great Depression years of this biography. Joe Dew graduated from Redfield, Iowa, two years after my mother graduated from the neighboring rival town of Dexter. Joe Dew’s father was a blacksmith, which was needed less and less during those times. Joe needed to find work. He had such drive and determination to find work, even eventually following the sweep of wheat harvesting from Texas and into the Pacific Northwest.

During Joe Dew's WWII years, he survived the Battle of the Bulge as a tank commander--with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Distinguished Service Cross. The G.I. Bill enabled him to finish college in Ames, Iowa, then enjoy a career with General Motors.


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This is Grant Wood Country

By Joan Liffring-Zug

This is Grant Wood Country

Why this book?

Grant Wood's work coincided with the Great Depression. He was the state director of the Public Works of Art Project, an agency of the federal government which put artists to work. He created the designs for public murals, such as the ones in the library at Iowa State College (now University) at Ames, Iowa. Remarkably, Wood donated his time for the project. This book has many colored photos of Grant Wood's work, stories behind the scenes, and quotes by people who knew and worked with Iowa's favorite artist in bib overalls.


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Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History

By Jeremy Schaap

Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History

Why this book?

Boxing was such a popular sport during the Great Depression. My grandparents’ family regularly listened to “the fights” on the radio. Dubbed “Cinderella Man” by writer Damon Runyon, James J. Braddock, with 24 losses, won one of the biggest upsets in heavyweight boxing championship history. He defeated Max Baer on June 13, 1935, in Long Island City, New York, for the world title in a unanimous decision after a grueling 15 rounds.

The next day, Leora Wilson wrote her two sons who’d joined the Navy during the Depression, “Expect you may have heard the Braddock and Baer fight. I’m glad Braddock won–he needs the money for his family.” Not only that, but Braddock had been “on the dole” at one point, an underdog in many ways. He was so embarrassed at needing help to feed his three children that he paid back the money he’d received from the government. A remarkable Depression Era story.


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The WPA Guide to 1930s Iowa

By Federal Writers Project

The WPA Guide to 1930s Iowa

Why this book?

The Federal Writers’ Project was one of many projects undertaken by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The American Guide Series was a subset of works produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). The books, created through a cooperative effort of both Federal and State organizations, are part travel guide, part almanac. Each includes illustrations and photographs and offers a fascinating snapshot of the 48 United States in the Union, and Alaska, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The project employed over 6,000 writers. Many of these books have been reprinted.


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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

By Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Why this book?

This remarkable true slice of history was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler.

I especially enjoyed learning about the backgrounds of the crew, many of whom were dirt poor because of the Great Depression. This fine book combines the craftsmanship of boat-building, superb coaching, laws of physics, psychology, and the mystery of hope. Rewarding and refreshing.


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