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

Rae Meadows Author Of I Will Send Rain
By Rae Meadows

The Books I Picked & Why

An Owl on Every Post

By Sanora Babb

Book cover of An Owl on Every Post

Why 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. 


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The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck

Book cover of The Grapes of Wrath

Why 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. 


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Letters from the Dust Bowl

By Caroline Henderson

Book cover of Letters from the Dust Bowl

Why 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.” 


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An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion

By Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor

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

Why 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. 


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

By Anne Whiston Spirn

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

Why 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.


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