16 books directly related to famine 📚

All 16 famine books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

The Third Horseman: A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot

By William Rosen,

Book cover of The Third Horseman: A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot

Why this book?

The Third Horseman combines a discussion of climate change with a major disaster, the great famine of the fourteenth century. Vividly written and fast-paced, this well-written book makes history enjoyable. The author wears his research lightly, which makes for a rattling good story. Not a global book, but it will make you think.


Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

By Anne Applebaum,

Book cover of Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

Why this book?

This is a devastating history of the Holodomor, the Soviet state engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. As Applebaum writes so thorough were the efforts to confiscate food from Ukrainian peasants that “just being alive attracted suspicion.” Despite eyewitness reporting at the time, accounts of the famine were denied. I interviewed some famine survivors when I was a journalist based in Ukraine but did not fully grasp the horrifying scale of what occurred. This book leaves you in no doubt of that.


All Quiet on the Home Front: An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War

By Richard Van Emden, Steve Humphries,

Book cover of All Quiet on the Home Front: An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War

Why this book?

Wonderfully readable, and full of first-hand accounts via interview and letter, this book tells you what it was really like for the people of Britain during WW1 – the rationing, the blackout, the Blitz, the shortages; how the women took over the men’s jobs, from driving railway engines to ploughing the fields; the emotional impact of dealing with the flood of wounded and the deaths; and the hardship and increasing mental problems as the war seemed never to be going to end.


The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

By Robert Conquest,

Book cover of The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

Why this book?

The British historian of the Soviet Union wrote a number of extra-ordinary books about the horrors of the Soviet Union but this was the best one. It pulls together the story of the second great man-made famine in the Soviet Union when Stalin pushed through the second collectivisation campaign. It was the first book to bring together why and how Stalin’s policies deliberately killed so many people.

He also describes how many people in the West chose to ignore the evidence and the eye-witness accounts of the suffering. Reading it inspired me to research the Great Leap Forward famine. The parallels are astonishing. Did Mao know what happened under Stalin, or did he know but not care when he followed the same path?


The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East

By Melanie S. Tanielian,

Book cover of The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East

Why this book?

During the war, Beirut and Mount Lebanon were heavily impacted by a famine because of several factors, including the Allied blockade of the Mediterranean, bad harvests, heat waves, shortage of workers, and a destructive locust invasion. As a result, even though the area did not witness any battles on its territory, hundreds of thousands of people died due to famine and disease. Fiction or real, the horrors reached to a degree that “mothers eating their children” stories carved in the collective memory of the war. Drawing on the reality of famine, the book deals with how war relief and welfare activities acted as forces that opened a new political space for civilian provisioning, eventually leading to the emergence of a new political space in the post-war period.


Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

By Mike Davis,

Book cover of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

Why this book?

This book is best known for its controversial argument that not only did British imperial policies worsen the droughts-famines-epidemics that devastated India from 1876 to 1878 but that Victorian policy-makers could have intervened to save millions of lives but refrained. Yet Davis also provides a wrenching account of Brazilian droughts in 1876-79 and 1896-1900 that left millions dead, particularly in the Sertão, the northeastern hinterland. He shows the connections between climate (El Niño), economic transformations, and mass displacements, and starvation in Brazil, and how European empires, the United States, and Japan took advantage of these crises. 

Some readers will appreciate his polemical style, others not; Davis, however, is a fantastic writer and presents a nuanced and well-researched depiction of famine in Brazil. 


The Tale of Gwyn

By Cynthia Voigt,

Book cover of The Tale of Gwyn

Why this book?

When I first encountered this book in the late 1980s, it was titled Jackaroo--named for the Robin Hood-like folk hero in the non-magical secondary world called the Kingdom. However, the star of the story is Gwyn, so the renaming makes sense. The book is riveting in its action moments, but somehow I'm even more drawn to the scenes of daily toil. I have absolutely no idea how Voigt can make scrubbing the floor seem so important! (This is the real floor-scrubbing book of this list.) The Tale of Gwyn evokes a medieval European past that feels more real than the best-researched historical novel. Hopefully the series rebrand draws the wide readership it deserves--it is both exciting and thoughtful, bleak and hopeful, and I return to it again and again. 


Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

By Sandra Fahy,

Book cover of Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

Why this book?

Economics does not always make easy reading, so stories are best told by listening to how privation is felt in everyday life. Sandra Fahy’s book is a terrific recent addition. An anthropologist, Fahy interviews famine refugees, who tell their tales. A common theme was that they worked hard and many believed at least to some extent in the regime. But they became disillusioned and defected not only because of economic conditions but for professional reasons; that they were prevented from putting their expertise and skills to use.


The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

By John Kelly,

Book cover of The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

Why this book?

There’s a minor thread in my novel about the Irish Potato Famine, and this book was a major resource. It was sobering to learn that there was enough food to feed the Irish peasantry, but it was not distributed according to need. (Much of it was exported.) Worse still, it was a cultural moment in which the wealthy found ways to absolve themselves of the poverty of their neighbors. But I was most shocked to learn about the scientific implications. Essentially, the potato variety that failed was a monoculture. And the solution to the blight involved returning to the Andes, with its vast genetic diversity, and finding a resistant strain. 


The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan

By Sarah Cameron,

Book cover of The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan

Why this book?

The Kazakhs suffered a devastating famine 1928–1932 that was caused by Stalin’s collectivization campaign. Because the Kazakhs were nomadic herders, the first step was to “modernize” them by forcing them to become settled farmers. Cameron uses Russian- and Kazakh-language sources to show how Soviet communism’s obsession with creating modern nations led to near-genocide.


Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

By Frank Dikötter,

Book cover of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

Why this book?

From 1958-1962, Chairman Mao’s disastrous economic policies culminated in a famine that killed forty million people or more. Frank Dikötter combed through Communist Party archives to find documents and first-hand accounts of this tragedy. The archives have since been closed to scholars, so a book like this is now impossible to write. This is not just the story of the greatest man-made disaster in Chinese history, but it is also an indictment of Communist Party rule. The legacy of this famine continues to affect Chinese society. Much of the cruelty, corruption, and cynicism that plagues contemporary China are long-term results of this traumatic event.


Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village

By Ralph A. Thaxton Jr.,

Book cover of Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village

Why this book?

A tremendous piece of scholarship by American Ralph Thaxton, looking at a specific village during the late 1950s and early 1960s as it experienced the great famines. This shows the impact of that tragedy on everyday Chinese lives, and the ways in which the suffering of that period was to overshadow so much of what happened afterward. Beautifully written, with wonderful deployment of other scholarship, an exceptional work, and one that is part of a trilogy that takes the story forwards in the late 1960s.


Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

By Yang Songlin, Baohui Xie (translator),

Book cover of Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

Why this book?

The accepted wisdom about the Chinese Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 both in and outside of China is that the Great Leap Forward famine death toll was 30 million. This book challenges this wisdom. The book’s argument is based on the research of Professor Sun Jingxian who is a mathematician, who, after having examined the domestic migration pattern during the period, comes to the conclusion that the famine death toll was about 4 million.


Climate and Society in Europe: The Last Thousand Years

By Christian Pfister, Heinz Wanner,

Book cover of Climate and Society in Europe: The Last Thousand Years

Why this book?

This is a most impressive account of human history and past climatic extremes. It brings together the best of our knowledge of the climate history of Europe as recorded in old archives, paintings, monastery records, sagas, pay lists, tax records, hinting at years without summer, famines, bonanza yields, etc. These fingerprints of the past are combined with the best of modern climatology and provide a holistic picture of past and novel aspects of climatic change. A masterpiece resulting from the cooperation of two outstanding authors: a historian and a climatologist. If you wish to understand climatic extremes, this is the book to digest. 


The Sapphire Flute

By Karen E. Hoover,

Book cover of The Sapphire Flute

Why this book?

This is a clean read that I feel safe giving to one of my kids and not worrying about any inappropriate content.

The author combines a perfect mix of adventure and mystery on this journey to collect keystones and save a dying world.

The stakes are high, yet one of the lessons the reader can glean is that even those who feel like they are small (compared to the problem) can do great things.

There are great lessons about friendship and hope, and how important these things are when times are tough.

One of the best things about this is that it is a series! There is a journey here to enjoy and a new world to get immersed in.


The Rice Sprout Song

By Eileen Chang,

Book cover of The Rice Sprout Song

Why this book?

This is a heart-wrenching novel about hunger and starvation in the early 1950s in a Southern China village. The book title implies the joy of harvest, which has a rhetorical effect as it runs counter to the book theme. Its metaphor for hunger is watery gruel that the rural poor eat for every meal as they slowly starve. The story is about the impending great famine after the Communist Party introduces the land reform policies and how villagers suffer in silence atrocious government abuse. 

This novel is a must-read if you want to understand what starvation feels like.