The best books about the Dust Bowl

5 authors have picked their favorite books about the Dust Bowl and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of The Grapes of Wrath

Coming from poverty, I mean, we were so poor I watched my mother shoplift a package of meat and a can of green beans one time so that we could eat that night, I really appreciated the struggles. I am a sucker for ‘big family’ dramas too and add that I lived in Oklahoma and most of my books were set in Oklahoma, this story had a huge impact on me and my novel. What I didn’t like though was the family’s inability to fight the system. I love a good David and Goliath story!


Who am I?

Poverty and wealth, the two opposing worlds have fascinated me since I was nine. I was born to a 1970’s motorcycle gang pimp and a fifteen-year-old girl he had raped. I know poverty well. And then when I was nine, my mother was a maid for an upper-class family who owned an oil services company and she ended up marrying their son and suddenly I was introduced to a whole new world where people didn't lack life choices due to limited resources. The rich were like aliens to me. So ever since my childhood, I have been captivated by the two worlds and it tends to bleed into my stories.


I wrote...

Land of Tornadoes

By Melanie S. Wolfe,

Book cover of Land of Tornadoes

What is my book about?

They were supposed to be the next Kennedys, each adopted Wilson teen prepared for a specific political office, but when their father, CTO of Colossal Oil is falsely accused of stealing from the company after he publicly voices his concerns about the recent return of the dustbowl and fracking chemicals leaking into the drinking water and its correlation to the current outbreak of Frackheads (people who drink tainted water and become psychopaths and roam the roads with one mission, to kill for fun) the family’s focus goes from the future to a hacking revenge operation. After their night off in OKC, and a series of unfortunate events, the once unified Wilson clan struggle to keep themselves alive and their beautiful, unique family together.

An American Exodus

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

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

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. 


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. 

An Owl on Every Post

By Sanora Babb,

Book cover of An Owl on Every Post

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. 


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. 

Out of the Dust

By Karen Hesse,

Book cover of Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust was the first verse novel I read. Set during the Dust Bowl of the thirties, I was drawn into the story from the first page. I loved Billy Jo, the main character, and was impressed by Karen Hesse’s ability to capture, in so few words, the dust, desolation, and difficulty of living in Oklahoma at that time. 


Who am I?

Technology advances, scenery changes, but the human heart remains the same. As a writer, I hope to honor lives unnoticed or forgotten and have found that writing in verse affords me the truest, most uncorrupted pathway into the human heart. Each of the verse novels I’ve written or recommended here is spun from the strongest threads of time, place, and character. My hope is that the spare words within each book will build bridges across time and culture, and that those of us willing to open our hearts and cross these bridges will help create a more tolerant and peaceful world. 


I wrote...

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown

By Ann E. Burg,

Book cover of Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown

What is my book about?

My most recent book, Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown, tells the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Johnstown Pennsylvania was a working-class factory city. Above the soot-soaked streets, an elite fishing and hunting club, built on a pristine man-made lake, drew America's wealthiest business barons. Though repeatedly urged to fix the deteriorating dam that held the lake, club members disregarded these warnings. When heavy rains came, the dam collapsed and plunged the city into chaos.

While set in a different century and told through the experiences of characters whose daily lives were much different than our own, the events which unfolded in Johnstown reflect the same attitudes and issues we face today. History has much to tell us if we are listening.

Prairie Fires

By Caroline Fraser,

Book cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder maintains an avid fanbase in spite of reappraisals of her racial attitudes; and re-encountering her as an adult can be an exciting, disappointing, jarring, but fascinating experience. Caroline Fraser sorts through the semi-autobiographical sources, not least of which are their fictional writings, of Wilder and her collaborator daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, all of which they infused with their own nostalgia and libertarianism. The tortured landscape becomes almost another living figure, as well, since natural disasters set the scene for the novels and their writing. The books’ creation, their influences, and, in turn, their influence in the mythmaking of the American West, contemporary racism, and man-made climate change included, make Wilder more than just a little girl growing up in little houses. Readers might also find themselves wishing to revisit other figures from their youth.


Who am I?

Little House on the Prairie, Roots, the Bicentennial, family vacations, and an early childhood in New Orleans all shaped my perception of the world as a place overlaying history. Although I could not have completely articulated this then, I specifically wanted to know what women before me had done, I wanted to know about parts of the story that seemed to be in the shadows of the places where I consumed history, and I wanted to know “the real story.” The intensity of recreating a person’s world and their experience in it made me question how historians know what we know, and how deeply myth, nostalgia, or even preconceptions guide readings of the evidence. The authors here all show an awareness that re-telling a person’s life can move it away from the evidence and they try to return to that evidence and find the “real story,” or as near to it as possible.


I wrote...

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

What is my book about?

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass's varied relationships with white women-including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing--who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women's movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed "woman's rights man."

Letters from the Dust Bowl

By Caroline Henderson,

Book cover of Letters from the Dust Bowl

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.” 


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. 

Daring to Look

By Anne Whiston Spirn,

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

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.


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. 

New book lists related to the Dust Bowl

All book lists related to the Dust Bowl

Bookshelves related to the Dust Bowl