For the third month of the Decades Reading Challenge, we’ll be reading books that take place in the 1930s.
You can read all about the challenge, download your free printable reading tracker, and find book lists for other decadeshere.
As a reminder, you can choose any book you like that is set in the decade, but to get you started, we’ve compiled a great list of books about the Thirties that includes classic literature, historical fiction novels, and non-fiction reads about some of the most fascinating events.
As you would expect of the 1930s, our list of recommendations includes numerous books about the Great Depression and books about the Dust Bowl years, but not all books about American life in the 1930s center around these themes.
Other books about the 1930s in America give us a glimpse into slices of life, including Hollywood, sports, crime, and high society.
The Thirties was also a decade defined by international tensions in the lead up to World War II, and while a number of books on our list do include fascinating stories about Hitler’s rise to power, rest assured that there are plenty of books set in the 1930s that do not mention Nazis.
Major World Events of the 1930s
Before recommending books from each decade, we like to provide historical context with an overview of the major events of the time, but if you’d prefer, feel free to scroll straight to our book list.
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the majority of the 1930s would be defined by The Great Depression. In 1932, nearly 25% of the US population was unemployed, and by early 1933 nearly 1 in 3 people was unemployed.
Beginning in 1931, the US suffered the worst drought in its history, leading to the Dust Bowl years. Strong winds stripped the topsoil from the drought, devastating farms throughout the Midwest, and forced many to move in search of work and better living conditions.
The Empire State Building was completed in 1931.
During the 1930s, many bank robbers and murders gained celebrity status – a strange phenomenon unique to this decade.
Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party rose to power in 1933 and began instituting a series of measures aimed at persecuting Jewish citizens. Throughout the decade, Hitler also undermined the post-WWI international order, withdrawing from the League of Nations and building up the German army. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, it marked the start of World War II.
The 21st Amendment passed in 1933, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending prohibition.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary (aka “The Rock”) opens near San Francisco and is used to hold some of the most dangerous and well-known US criminals.
Penguin Books produced their first paperback books in 1935, making affordable literature accessible to the masses.
The US Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935.
The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany amid a very tense political atmosphere. Adolf Hitler viewed the games as an opportunity to prove his theory of Aryan racial superiority, but was humiliated when African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the US.
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, and continued until 1939 when Franco conquered Madrid.
Amelia Earhart, who in 1932 became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
In 1938, Seabiscut beat War Admiral in what came to be called the “Race of the Century.”
The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland premiered in 1939.
Books Set in the 1930s
As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, we may earn a referral fee from qualifying purchases.
by Lynda Rutledge Setting: 1938, Road Trip Across the US First Published: 2021
West with Giraffes is a delightful tale of adventure that will take you from the east coast of the US to the west.
Based on the true story of two giraffes who survived a hurricane at sea, followed by a long trek on land, you won't want to put down this book. The human main characters are just as compelling - an older man sent by the San Diego zoo to accompany the giraffes and an unkempt, starving teenager.
The Book Girls Say...We both adored everything about this story, and it will be on our list of favorite books of 2021. From the insights it gives to life across America in the late 30s to the growing relationships between characters, including between the humans and giraffes, so many things make it a great book!
By Sara Gruen Setting: 1932, Illinois & New York First published 2006
Looking to escape his circumstances, Jacob Jankowski jumps onto a passing train and suddenly finds himself thrust into the world of a circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression. Because Jacob is just shy of his veterinary degree, he's put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. He becomes enamored with Marlena - the star of the equestrian show. But Marlena is married to the circus's cruel animal trainer. Jacob also meets Rosie, an elephant that everyone had hoped would help save the circus, but who appears to be untrainable.
The Book Girls Say... There are a few books that you don't want to end because you're worried you won't find another book you enjoy as much, and this was one of those books. The writing transports you to the time and place - and it's a world you'll want to get lost in.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 90% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Erik Larson Setting: 1933, Berlin, Germany First published 2011
William Dodd, a professor from Chicago, is named America's ambassador to Germany at the rise of Hitler's Nazi party. His family joins him in Berlin, and his outgoing daughter, Martha, is immediately drawn in to the parties, pomp, and handsome young men of the Third Reich.
While Martha becomes enamored with the "New Germany," her father grows increasingly concerned by what he witnesses all around him as Hitler's true character and ambition become more clear. By the end of 1933, however, even Martha finds herself living in terror.
The Book Girls Say... We've read a lot of books about WWII, but many have left of questioning how the world did not recognize the darkening atmosphere in Germany for so long. This book shines a light on just that question from an eyewitness perspective. If you enjoy history and non-fiction, Erik Larson's books are a wonderful choice because of his detailed research, however, keep in mind that his writing style moves slowly and deliberately.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 71% Would Recommend to a Friend
During the 80 years leading up to the Great Depression, so called Orphan Trains transported children from cities on the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest. The fates of the children on board - whether they would end up with loving families or end up with a childhood of hard labor - was determined by pure luck.
Vivian - now 91 - was one of those children, and the memories of her childhood are now tucked inside of trunks in her attic. Eighteen-year-old Molly is aging out of the foster care system and is assigned community service helping the elderly Vivian clean out her home. She will soon learn that the two have much more in common that she ever expected.
The Book Girls say...Melissa read Orphan Train a few years back and was shocked to learn about the Children's Aid Society trains. While some have criticized the book as seeming like a young adult novel, Melissa enjoyed the story and characters.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
by William Kent Krueger Setting: 1932 - Minnesota & down the Mississippi River First published 2020
Set in 1932 during the Great Depression, This Tender Land follows four orphans who have escaped the abusive Lincoln Indian Training School. The kids set off down the river, and have to survive the environment while being pursued by the school.
They have to decide whether to trust each stranger they encounter and discover themselves along the way. Equal parts adventure and heart, this book is often described as a modern classic and compared to Huckleberry Finn.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa's husband just finished reading This Tender Land and said it lives up to all the great reviews. She can't wait to pick it up now that he finished reading it!
By Kristin Hannah Setting: 1939, France First published 2015
The Nightingale tells the story of French sisters Vianne and Isabelle who have always been at odds. Vianne is a rule-follower and Isabelle more rebellious and willing to speak her mind. With WWII on, Isabelle is intent on fighting for France, while Vianne simply wants to survive the war with her family intact - even if it means allowing a Nazi officer to live in her home. Isabelle, who refuses to live passively under German authority, joins the French resistance and begins hiding Jewish children and guiding Allied airmen out of France after their planes are shot down - work for which she adopts the codename the Nightingale. As the war wages on, both sisters learn who they are and what they are capable of.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 91% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Harper Lee Setting: 1933, Alabama First published 1960
You probably read this classic back in high school (or at least you were supposed to), but we recommend you give this famous book another read. Chances are you'll get even more out of it this time around!
If you aren't familiar with the story, it's told from the perspective of a 6-year-old girl called Scout. Her widowed father, Atticus Finch, is a crusading local lawyer who risks everything to defend a black man accused of a terrible crime.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 92% Would Recommend to a Friend
by Kristin Hannah Setting: 1934-1936, Texas First published 2021
As the Dust Bowl drought gripped the Great Plains, millions were out of work, crops were failing, water was drying up, and farmers were fighting to keep their land. This is the story of Elsa Martinelli, who is forced to make an agonizing choice: fight for her land in Texas or move west, to California, in search of a better life. She, like so many of her neighbors, courageously faces the hardship and sacrifices that came to define an entire generation during the Great Depression as they fought for the American Dream.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 96% Would Recommend to a Friend
By John Steinbeck Setting: 1930s Oklahoma to California First published 1939
With the Great Depression gripping the nation, this epic novel from the 1930s chronicles the Dust Bowl migration that transformed the nation. The story follows a farm family - the Joads - who are driven from their homestead in Oklahoma and forced to travel west for promise of a better life in California. But when they finally arrive at their destination, the worst rumors prove true.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 86% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Alice Walker Setting: 1930s Georgia First published 1982
The Color Purple portrays the lives of African American women in the deep south throughout the first half of the twentieth century, though most of the story takes place between the two world wars. Separated when they are young, sisters Celie and Nettie maintain their relationship through a series of letters spanning twenty years. This book broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, while taking readers on a journey of love and redemption.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐½ 71% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Stephen King Setting: 1932, Cold Mountain Penitentiary First published 1996
Cold Mountain Penitentiary is home to the Depression-worn men of E Block. All of them are convicted killers awaiting their time to walk the Green Mile - the path that leads to the electric chair known as "Old Sparky." Death row guard Paul Edgecombe has walked the mile with a lot of convicts, but he's never met anyone else like John Coffey - a giant man with the mind of a child who has been condemned for a terrifyingly violent crime.
by Shelley Wood Setting: Canada, 1934-1939 First published 2019
The Quintland Sisters is a fictionalized telling of real life identical quintuplets born in 1934, taken from their home, made wards of the government, and put on display at the height of the Great Depression for 6,000 visitors a day to watch them play.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
This non-fiction read tells the full story of the most spectacular crime wive in American history - the two year battle between young J. Edgar Hoover at the head of the FBI and an assortment of criminals who became national icons, including John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and more.
By Arthur Golden Setting: 1930, Kyoto, Japan First published 1997
Nitta is a young girl taken from her Japanese fishing village at the age of 9 and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house in Kyoto - a world in which appearances are paramount, where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men, and where love is scorned as illusion.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 89% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Daniel James Brown Setting: 1936, Berlin Olympics First published 2013
This is the story of nine working-class boys - sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers - who beat all the odds to even become the American rowing team, let alone defeat others on the international stage. Out of the depths of the Depression, these unlikely young men shocked the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
In writing this story, Brown drew upon the boys’ own journals and vivid memories to paint a portrait of an era.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 90% Would Recommend to a Friend
The impoverished residents of Troublesome Creek struggle for nearly everything, but thanks to Roosevelt's Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project they don't want for books.
Book woman Cussy Mary Carter, is not only Troublesome Creek's own traveling library, she's also the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. But not everyone approves of Cussy's family or the government Library Project. Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the hill folks, but she has to confront prejudice and suspicion as old as the Appalachias.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Elizabeth Letts Setting: 1938, Hollywood; late 19th & early 20th centuries, South Dakota First published 2019
This novel tells the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, through the eyes of Maud, the wife of author L. Frank Baum. The book follows two story lines - one tells the story of Maud's youth as the rebellious daughter of a leading suffragette and the early years of Maud and Frank's marriage on the prairie.
The second story line takes place in Hollywood when Maud learns that MGM is adapting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a movie. Then 77, Maud finagle her way onto the set in hopes of ensuring the producers stay true to the spirit of the book. She meets Judy Garland and recognizes in the young woman the yearning that defined her own life story.
The Book Girls say... Melissa read Finding Dorothy in January and it quickly became one of her favorite books that she already looks forward to re-reading again. It captures a true glimpse into life as a woman in the late 1800s-1930s while constantly keeping you engaged between moments of true joy and deep heartache in the life of Maud.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Isabel Allende Setting: 1930s First published 2019
This novel begins during the Spanish Civil War. When Franco succeeds in overthrowing the government, thousands flee to the French border, including Roser, a pregnant young widow, and Victor, an army doctor and brother of Roser's deceased love. In order to improve their chances of survival, Roser and Victor must marry despite neither wishing to do so.
Together with thousands of other refugees, they board the SS Winnipeg bound for Chile, leaving behind a Europe erupting in WWII. While starting over on another continent, both hold onto hope that they'll be able to return to Spain one day. But as they witness the battle between freedom and repression across the globe, Roser and Victor discover that home is closer than they thought.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa recently watched an interview with author Isabel Allende, and found her utterly hilarious and charming. We both look forward to reading this one, and expect that if her writing is anything like her speaking, Allende's novel is sure to jump to the top of our favorites list.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 80% Would Recommend to a Friend
By Amor Towles Setting: 1938, New York City First published 2011
In post-Depression-era New York, a young women has a chance encounter with a handsome banker, and suddenly finds herself thrust into a yearlong journey into high society. You'll be drawn in by the characters and the sparkling depiction of New York's social strata. As one review put it, "If a novel could win an award for best cinematography, this would take home the gold."
By Beatriz Williams Setting: 1938, Rhode Island First published 2013
It's Memorial Day 1938 and New York socialite Lily Dane has returned with her family for another summer in the oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island. But when Lily's former best friend shows up at the beach, newly married to Lily's former fiance, the summer no longer looks to be as peaceful and relaxing as planned.
Amid gossip and an impending hurricane, buried emotions and unexpected truths bubble to the surface.
By Laura Hillenbrand Setting: 1938, USA First published 1999
In 1938, a racehorse named Seabiscuit was the single biggest newsmaker, receiving more coverage than even FDR, Hilter, and Mussolini.
Seabiscuit had been written off by the racing establishment because of his crooked legs, but three men changed his fortunes - Charles Howard, who introduced the automobile to the western US and became an overnight millionaire; Tom Smith, a mustang breaker from Colorado; and jockey Red Pollard, a failed boxer who was blind in one eye and half crippled.
This book is based on the true story of Georgia Tann's "adoption" agency that claimed to help orphans, but instead kidnapped poor children and trafficked them to wealthy families.
Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings have a wonderful life on the Mississippi River aboard their family’s shantyboat. But on stormy night when their father has to take their mother to the hospital, Rill is left in charge. But when strangers arrive, the kids are thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. They are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents - but they quickly realize the dark truth.
In present day South Carolina, Avery Stafford returns home to help her father during a health crisis. When she stumbles upon the possibility that her grandmother may be harboring a dark family secret, Avery becomes obsessed with her mission to uncover the truth.
The Book Girls say...Melissa read this heart-breaking tale and hates that it was based on true events. It was worth reading, but she recommends grabbing your tissues and keeping them handy!
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 90% Would Recommend to a Friend
This is not your traditional holocaust story. The Zookeeper's Wife is the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo- after a bomb killed most of their animals - managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages.
This book receives mixed reviews, but if you love animals and enjoy learning about WWII from different perspectives, we think you'll enjoy this non-fiction read.
By Fannie Flagg Setting: 1930s, Alabama First published 1987
In this novel, the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode is telling a story to middle-aged Evelyn. Her tale is of two women who - back in the 1930s - ran a cafe in Whistle Stop, Alabama. Serving up good coffee and barbecue, the cafe was a place for friendship, and the occasional murder...
While many people have seen the movie adaptation of this novel, as is often the case - the story in the book unfolds differently, and most agree the book is better.
Book set in Canada about two geese who mate for life and an Indian couple
Friday 19th of February 2021
I also read this book and recommend it. As I read, I constantly was comparing it to Tom Sawyer.
2020 Reading Challenge - Book Girls' Guide
Wednesday 30th of September 2020
[…] March - 1930s […]
Friday 28th of February 2020
I haven't been officially participating in your decades challenge but love looking over your lists. I've read several on this list and liked them. Great list! A few I hadn't read are now on my To Read list.
I recently finished This Tender Land by WIlliam Kent Krueger and loved it. It's set in 1932. Here's the description from my library's catalog:
The acclaimed author of Ordinary Grace crafts a powerful novel about an orphan's life-changing adventure traveling down America's great rivers during the Great Depression, seeking both a place to call home and a sense of purpose in a world sinking into despair"-- Provided by publisher.
1932, Minnesota. The Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O'Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent's wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own. -- adapted from jacket
Saturday 29th of February 2020
Thank you so much, Karen! This sounds like an excellent book that we're adding to our personal reading lists. Plus, it fits really well into more than one future list we have coming up AND I'm going to add it to our list of books to read if you loved Where the Crawdads Sing! Thanks so much for passing along such a great recommendation!