The best books that will take you into the heart of the Dust Bowl

Who am I?

Photographs, for me, are essential to writing about a particular period. They ignite my imagination like nothing else. For this book I pored over the Library of Congress archives of 1930s FSA photographs, particularly those by Dorothea Lange. Her photos capture humanity at its most desperate, most determined, and they walloped me. Such ruin and poverty, and lives upended. But those faces of Lange’s were what helped me find my characters. I hope that the story of the Bell family transports you to a time and place like none other in American history. These five selections will give you further insight into what life what like.


I wrote...

I Will Send Rain

By Rae Meadows,

Book cover of I Will Send Rain

What is my book about?

In Depression-era Oklahoma, the Bells wait for rain as their farm goes fallow. Teenaged Birdie dreams of running away with her boyfriend. Her young brother Fred escapes into a world of his own creation. As Samuel looks more feverishly to God for answers, his wife Annie tries to hold her family together while harboring a growing desire for another man. When the first dust storms hit, each of them is knocked off-kilter. I Will Send Rain is about a family looking for mercy and meaning in the incomprehensible, and in so doing, shining a light on what we exact from those closest to us and what holds us together. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of An Owl on Every Post

Rae Meadows Why did I love this book?

Babb’s memoir recounts her years as a child of bumbling pioneers on the high plains of Colorado. Her family lived underground in a dugout and eked out existence from the drought-ravaged prairie. The book predates the Dust Bowl, but there are warning signs of what’s to come. Told in a voice of lyric precision with a memorable cast of characters, it’s a compelling story of a singular girlhood that left me marveling at how this family survived. 

By Sanora Babb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Owl on Every Post as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sanora Babb experienced pioneer life in a one-room dugout, eye-level with the land that supported, tormented and beguiled her; where her family fought for their lives against drought, crop-failure, starvation, and almost unfathomless loneliness. Learning to read from newspapers that lined the dugout's dirt walls, she grew up to be a journalist, then a writer of unforgettable books about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, most notably Whose Names Are Unknown.

The author was seven when her parents began to homestead an isolated 320-acre farm on the western plains. She tells the story through her eyes as a sensitive,…


Book cover of The Grapes of Wrath

Rae Meadows Why did I love this book?

Overwrought? Yes. Worth reading? Yes. The journey of the Joads, poor, struggling migrants who have nowhere to go, no way to make a life for their family, still resonates. Ma Joad, in particular, is a rich and surprising character. At times it’s a strain to believe some of the characters’ naivete, but Steinbeck’s narrative is deft and evocative, and succeeds in elucidating the humanity and despair at the center of the Dust Bowl. 

By John Steinbeck,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Grapes of Wrath as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags, I don't want him satisfied.'

Shocking and controversial when it was first published, The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's Pultizer Prize-winning epic of the Joad family, forced to travel west from Dust Bowl era Oklahoma in search of the promised land of California. Their story is one of false hopes, thwarted desires and powerlessness, yet out of their struggle Steinbeck created a drama that is both intensely human and majestic in its scale and moral vision.


Book cover of Letters from the Dust Bowl

Rae Meadows Why did I love this book?

Henderson was a homesteader and teacher in the Oklahoma panhandle and this collection of her writing creates a compelling first-hand portrait of the Dust Bowl. Impeccably detailed about rural farm life, from the days of prosperity to the bare-bones existence necessitated by hardship, Henderson is a thoughtful, ponderous guide. “Out here we thought the depths of the depression had been fathomed some time ago when the sheriff subtracted from the very personal possessions of one our neighbors a set of false teeth that he had been unable to pay for.” 

By Caroline Henderson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Letters from the Dust Bowl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In May 1936 Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace wrote to Caroline Henderson to praise her contributions to American ""understanding of some of our farm problems."" His comments reflected the national attention aroused by Henderson's articles, which had been published in Atlantic Monthly since 1931. Even today, Henderson's articles are frequently cited for her vivid descriptions of the dust storms that ravaged the Plains.

Caroline Henderson was a Mount Holyoke graduate who moved to Oklahoma's panhandle to homestead and teach in 1907. This collection of Henderson's letters and articles published from 1908 to1966 presents an intimate portrait of a woman's…


Book cover of An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion

Rae Meadows Why did I love this book?

Photographer Dorothea Lange and her husband economist Paul Taylor traveled throughout the US documenting the Dust Bowl diaspora. They recorded what they saw and what they heard people say, in order to bear witness to an unfolding American tragedy. The result is a collaboration that is part art project, part sociological study, part tool to effect social change. The book feels modern and original. A spare and searing story of desperation. 

By Dorothea Lange (photographer), Paul Taylor (contributor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An American Exodus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is aimed at anybody and everybody who is interested in spirituality - in general, and their own in particular. It employs the widest possible definition of spirituality - the non-physical aspects of existence and draws on most of the world's great religious, philosophical and spiritual traditions. It emphasises the 90 per cent on which all can agree. Practical spirituality is about self-knowledge, self-empowerment and searching for peace and contentment in a seemingly imperfect world. Through a mixture of insights, anecdotes, quotations, and practical activities, this book will help readers to understand what 'spirituality' means and how it differs…


Book cover of Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs and Reports from the Field

Rae Meadows Why did I love this book?

Dorothea Lange was employed by the Farm Securities Administration to photograph the conditions of the Depression, including the Dust Bowl and its migrants. She was an art photographer with a social justice streak whose detailed captions recorded details of the lives of her subjects. Spirn chronicles how Lange made her narrative case through her photographic choices and documentation. The book also presents a marvelous collection of lesser-known Lange photographs.

By Anne Whiston Spirn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Daring to Look as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Daring to Look" presents never-before-published photos and captions from Dorothea Lange's fieldwork in California, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina during 1939. Lange's images of squatter camps, benighted farmers, and stark landscapes are stunning, and her captions - which range from simple explanations of settings to historical notes and biographical sketches - add unexpected depth, bringing her subjects and their struggles unforgettably to life, often in their own words. When Lange was dismissed from the Farm Security Administration at the end of 1939, these photos and field notes were consigned to archives, where they languished, rarely seen. With "Daring to…


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Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

By Bruce Tate,

Book cover of Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

Bruce Tate

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The plan was insane. The trap seemed to snap shut on Bruce and Maggie Tate, an isolation forced on them by the pandemic and America's growing political factionalism. Something had to change.

Maggie's surprising answer: buy a boat, learn to pilot it, and embark on the Great Loop. With no experience, and knowing little about seafaring, diesel motors, or navigation, Maggie, Bruce, and the family dog decided to take on the six-thousand-mile journey down inland rivers, around the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and across the Great Lakes. They would have to navigate canals, rivers, seas, and locks. But along the way, they made new lifelong friends and were forever changed.

For nine months, Bruce and Maggie navigated shallow rivers, bottomless lakes, joy, and loss. Against all odds, they conquered the Great Loop, and along the way, found common cause across political divides with new friends while blowing the walls off their world.

Currently Away: How Two Disenchanted People Traveled the Great Loop for Nine Months and Returned to the Start, Energized and Optimistic

By Bruce Tate,


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