The best books about the human experience during the Great Depression

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a research nerd at heart. I am happiest pouring over historic newspapers online (thank you Library of Congress) or digging into a non-fiction book. The research I do for a book can be more rewarding than writing the book itself. When I read a 1933 article about a baby that would be given away as a prize during a civic fundraiser, I was hooked. What desperation would lead a parent to give away a child? Who would buy such a raffle ticket? Who thought this would be a good idea? I never did find the answers to my questions, so I made up my own.


I wrote...

The Raffle Baby

By Ruth Talbot,

Book cover of The Raffle Baby

What is my book about?

Teeny, Sonny Boy, and Vic have been swallowed up by the desperation and devastation of the Great Depression, but the trio is buoyed by the fantastical tales Teeny weaves around campfires in hobo jungles and migrant camps, including the story of the raffle baby. As the three navigate the ravages of poverty and prejudices, they form a family bond as strong as the forces against them. But when a solemn pact fails to protect them, their lives are forever changed. And Sonny Boy is left to tell their story, and his own.

Both heartbreaking and uplifting, The Raffle Baby examines the intersection of love, loss, and resilience, and the enduring triumph of memory. This is a magical tale not soon forgotten.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Grapes of Wrath

Ruth Talbot Why did I love this book?

A staple in high school literature curriculums, The Grapes of Wrath is probably the most-read book depicting the despair and resilience of those who experienced the Great Depression, particularly the Dust Bowl migrants. Of course, the story is beautifully written and haunting. But more than that, it is grounded in Steinbeck’s own experiences as a journalist, traveling alongside migrant workers in California. The resulting articles, published in October of 1936, informed his future writings, including The Grapes of Wrath. Without Steinbeck’s first-hand observations gathered in 1936, I doubt the book would be the masterpiece it instantly became. The final scene of this book has stuck in my mind for almost four decades, and I thought about it quite a bit as I wrote my own book about the Great Depression. In my opinion, this scene sums up the human experience in just a few lines—it is that powerful. 

By John Steinbeck,

Why should I read it?

17 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 Boy and Girl Tramps of America

Ruth Talbot Why did I love this book?

The author is a sociologist who rode the rails, on and off, alongside homeless youth in the early 1930s. He did not disguise himself or pretend to be “one of them.” Instead, he chronicled their stories in oral histories that are intimate and thorough depictions of how young men and women existed on the road, what was important to them, what they yearned for, how they protected themselves, and each other. As a sociologist and chronicler of groups within society, the author remained true to his obligations as an academic not to glorify, white-wash, or romanticize what he saw. As a result, the experiential dimensions of this book are incredibly robust and meaningful.

By Thomas Minehan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Boy and Girl Tramps of America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1933 and 1934, Thomas Minehan, a young sociologist at the University of Minnesota, joined the ranks of a roving army of 250,000 boys and girls torn from their homes during the Great Depression. Disguised in old clothes, he hopped freight trains crisscrossing six midwestern states. While undercover, Minehan associated on terms of social equality with several thousand transients, collecting five hundred life histories of the young migrants. The result was a vivid and intimate portrayal of a harrowing existence, one in which young people suffered some of the deadliest blows of the economic disaster.

Boy and Girl Tramps of…


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

Ruth Talbot Why did I love this book?

In heartbreaking, haunting detail, the author describes the experiences of individuals, families, and communities as they endured “the worst hard time” of the Dust Bowl. What struck me most about those interviewed is not just how much they were able to remember decades later, but the ongoing raw and painful emotions generated when they recounted their stories. Put all of this alongside the author’s meticulous research and analysis of the social, economic, political, and geographical forces of the time, and you have an incredibly moving story fully grounded in historical accuracy.

By Timothy Egan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Worst Hard Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

In a tour de force of historical reportage, Timothy Egan’s National Book Award–winning story rescues an iconic chapter of American history from the shadows.

The dust storms that terrorized the High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression were like nothing ever seen before or since. Following a dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region, Timothy Egan tells of their desperate attempts to carry on through blinding black dust blizzards, crop failure, and the death of loved ones. Brilliantly capturing the terrifying drama of catastrophe, he does equal justice to the human characters…


Book cover of Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression

Ruth Talbot Why did I love this book?

I read this book when I was a graduate student studying journalism, but it has never stopped resonating with me. When I began to research my novel set in the Great Depression, I returned to Hard Times and also had the good fortune to find and listen to the recordings of Terkel’s interview subjects. This book is essentially a collection of oral histories that runs the gamut of the human condition during the Great Depression: those who had everything, those who had nothing and everyone in-between. This is “person-on-the-street” journalism at its finest. The stories are mesmerizing and the voices are authentic. That is the magic of this amazing journalist who captured the voices of the world for decades.

By Studs Terkel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hard Times as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good War: A masterpiece of modern journalism and "a huge anthem in praise of the American spirit" (Saturday Review).

In this "invaluable record" of one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history, Studs Terkel recaptures the Great Depression of the 1930s in all its complexity. Featuring a mosaic of memories from politicians, businessmen, artists, striking workers, and Okies, from those who were just kids to those who remember losing a fortune, Hard Times is not only a gold mine of information but a fascinating interplay of memory and fact, revealing how…


Book cover of Sold on a Monday

Ruth Talbot Why did I love this book?

There are many historical novels about the Great Depression but Sold on a Monday moved me in particular. Perhaps I was drawn to it because it is a fictional account of actual circumstances. More likely, though, it is because, in one single story, Sold on a Monday is a lesson in the heart-wrenching decisions hundreds of thousands of people made to ensure their survival. As far-fetched as it sounds to us now, the notion of children being sold, or simply deposited on the front doorstep by their parents, was not uncommon during the Great Depression. The author was incredibly creative and thoughtful in the way she decided to tell the story, and that is perhaps the book’s greatest strength.

By Kristina McMorris,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sold on a Monday as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
A USA TODAY BESTSELLER
A WALL STREET JOURNAL BESTSELLER
A NATIONAL INDIEBOUND BESTSELLER
An unforgettable bestselling historical fiction novel by Kristina McMorris, inspired by a stunning piece of history from Depression-Era America.
2 CHILDREN FOR SALE
The sign is a last resort. It sits on a farmhouse porch in 1931, but could be found anywhere in an era of breadlines, bank runs and broken dreams. It could have been written by any mother facing impossible choices.
For struggling reporter Ellis Reed, the gut-wrenching scene evokes memories of his family's dark past. He snaps a photograph…


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By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope – about figuring out where you belong, finding your way there, and living a life that matters.

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Plains.

The Great Depression Explore 131 books about the Great Depression
The Dust Bowl Explore 14 books about the Dust Bowl
The Great Plains Explore 24 books about the Great Plains