Are you ready for month two of the Decades Reading Challenge? This month we’ll be reading books set in the 1920s.
You can read all about the challenge and download your free printable reading tracker here.
You are welcome to read any book that you’d like for the Decades Challenge, but to help you choose, we’ve compiled a great list with some of the best historical fiction novels set in the 1920s, as well as several non-fiction books centered around fascinating, lesser known events of the 1920s.
The 1920s literature themes represented on our book recommendations reflect a decade that began with a roar and ended with a crash. Among the historical fiction on the list, you’ll find many vibrant jazz age books that capture the essence of the roaring twenties and the prohibition era, but you’ll also find books about individuals and families still struggling to recover from the impacts of WWI.
Major World Events of the 1920s
Before choosing a book, it’s helpful to have some context of the major events during this decade. If you’d prefer, you can skip straight to our list of must read books set in the 1920s
American troops returned home at the end of WWI, but for many their experiences in Europe made them want some of the finer things in life for their families.
For the first time in the 1920s, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. For the young people in America’s big cities, the 1920s were a roaring time, but many other Americans were uncomfortable with this new urban lifestyle, leading to what some historians referred to as a “cultural civil war.”
Two amendments to the US Constitution helped defined the 1920s. The 18th Amendment, which was ratified at the end of 1919 ushered in the Prohibition Era of the Roaring Twenties, and the 19th Amendment, ratified in August of 1920, gave women the right to vote.
The Anti-Communist “Red Scare” of 1919 and 1920 led to the National Origins Act of 1924, a very restrictive immigration law that set quotas and excluded people from some countries in favor of others.
A familiar symbol of the Roaring Twenties, flappers were young women with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked, and were more sexually free than women in previous generations.
Following the first commercially licensed radio broadcast in 1920, radio quickly became a family experience with everyone gathering around to listen to the news, comedy shows, and music. By 1926, there were over 700 commercial radio stations.
The Great Migration of African Americas from the south to northern cities led to rising social tensions in the 1920s. With this Great Migration came increased visibility of Black culture, including jazz and blues music.
Radio stations and phonograph records also helped usher in the Jazz Age. Across the country, Jazz bands played at dance halls and young people were dancing the Charleston.
The 1920s were a time of rising crime. In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover is appointed the head of the FBI to reform the Bureau, and FBI investigated Al Capone and other famous gangsters of the era. The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929 was the culmination of the gang war between Al Capone and Bugs Moran.
At the beginning of the decade cars were deemed luxuries, but by the end of the decade they were necessities. By 1929, there was one car on the road for every five Americans, leading to a rise in businesses like service stations and motels.
Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo transatlantic flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.
Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse appeared for the first time in Steamboat Willie in 1928.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 started the period of The Great Depression in the United States.
Books Set in the 1920s
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By Paula McLain Setting: 1920s, Chicago, Paris, Pamplona (Spain) First published 2011
This work of historical fiction paints a vivid portrait of the 1920s and of the love affair between Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley. Hadley was living in Chicago and had all but given up on love when she met Hemingway, who would change her life forever. Together, they set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple living among such famed friends as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The couple is ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of the Jazz Age in Paris, leading to challenges for each of them individually, and ultimately to a marriage in crisis.
The Book Girls Say... Angela read this book years ago, and was captivated by the atmosphere of post-war, Jazz Age Paris. Having previously only experienced Hemingway as required reading in college, The Paris Wife provided color and context to appreciate his writings in a new light.
This YA dual timeline read is a fictionalized account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Rowan is a present-day 17-year-old about to start her important summer internship when workers discover a skeleton on her property during the renovation of a building that began as slave quarters.
Her story alternates with William Tillman, a 17-year-old in 1921, whose misguided attempt to "protect" a girl he had a crush on triggers more death, destruction, and division than he could have predicted.
The Book Girls say...For decades, the story of what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was buried. Despite living 20 minutes from the site, Melissa was never taught about it in school. She was horrified 10 years ago when she learned about what was then referred to by a less accurate name, the Tulsa Race Riot. She asked around at that time(~2010), and few locals knew about it at that time. Melissa turned to books to learn more and highly recommends Hannibal B. Johnson's Black Wall Street if you'd like a well-researched non-fiction read.
Johnson's follow-up, Black Wall Street 100, covers what has happened since 1921 as we approach the 100th anniversary this year.
If you're ever in Tulsa, near the ballpark downtown, watch the sidewalk. You'll see location markers with the names of businesses and business owners who had their livelihood destroyed. The markers indicate who rebuilt and who never reopened, and give a good sense of the true impact to the formerly successful community members
By Renee Rosen Setting: Chicago, 1920s First published 2013
Vera Abramowitz is determined to leave her gritty childhood behind and live a more exciting life. Bobbing her hair, showing her knees, and doing the Charleston in nightclubs, she earns the nickname “Dollface.”
As the ultimate flapper, Vera captures the attention of two high rollers, a handsome nightclub owner and a sexy gambler. On their arms, she gains entrée into a world filled with jazz, speakeasies, and money to burn. She thinks her biggest problem is choosing between them until the truth comes out. Her two lovers are really mobsters from rival gangs during Chicago’s infamous Beer Wars, a battle Al Capone refuses to lose.
When the good times come to an end, Vera becomes entangled in everything from bootlegging to murder as Chicago hurtles toward one of the most infamous days in its history, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
By Laini Giles Setting: Hollywood, 1920s First published 2017
Having left her abusive husband, Daisy DeVoe finds herself at Paramount Pictures styling hair for actress Clara Bow. Clara - the "It" Girl of the Jazz Age - is a handful and personifies the new woman of the 1920s both onscreen and off, smoking, drinking, and bursting with sex appeal. When Clara persuades Daisy to become her personal secretary, Daisy hopes to impose some order on Clara's chaotic life. This biographical fiction paints a vivid picture of the Golden Age of Hollywood, including the problems that arose when films went from silent to sound.
By Eva Ibbotson Setting: Wiltshire, England, 1919 into 1920s First published 1981
This historical romance is perfect for fans of Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. After the Russian Revolution turns her world upside down, Anna, young Russian countess, has no choice but to flee to England with nothing. She is forced to hide her aristocratic background and takes a job as servant. Desperate to keep her past a secret, she is overwhelmed by her new duties but finds herself attracted to the handsome Earl of the house. He appears to be falling for her as well, but there's also the matter of his nasty fiance.
By Elaine Weiss Setting: 1920 Tennessee First published 2018
In 1920, after a seven-decade crusade for the right of women to vote, thirty-five states have ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, twelve have rejected or refused to vote, and one last state - Tennessee is needed. The suffragists face vicious opposition from politicians, clergy, corporations, racists who don't want black women to vote, and even the "Antis" - women how oppose enfranchisement fearing the moral collapse of the nation.
Following a handful of remarkable women who led charge, this is the gripping story of how America's women won their own freedom.
The Book Girls Say... In honor of the 100th anniversary of women's right to vote, we wanted to find a great book about the suffrage movement. We were surprised to learn how few options there were, but The Woman's Hour comes to us highly recommended from book loving friends. Word is that this book is soon to be a major television event, adapted by Hillary Clinton.
By Glen David Gold Setting: Hollywood, 1916 through 1920s and 1930s First published 2009
Sunnyside stars Charlie Chaplin and examines America's thirst for entertainment.
The book opens with an extraordinary mass delusion where Chaplin is spotted in more than eight hundred places simultaneously, following which he becomes one of the world's first global celebrities. But while his fame is at its peak, his inspiration is at a low. As he struggles to find a film project as worthy as himself, we are introduced to a dazzling cast of characters that take us from the battlefields of France to the Russian Revolution and from the budding glamour of Hollywood to madcap Wild West shows. The result is a spellbinding novel about dreams, ambition, and the birth of modern America.
The Book Girls say... This book gets mixed reviews - people either say it's one of the best books they've ever read or they find it too hard to get into. Angela has added this to her audio book queue, so we'll update you on our thoughts.
By Kate Moore Setting: America, 1917 through 1920s First published 2017
The newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and the wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of World War I.
Across the US, hundreds of girls toil in the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these "shining girls" are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.
The Book Girls say... We have both read this book, and both highly recommend it! It is heartbreaking, because of the terrible illnesses that the woman suffer, but it's a riveting account of a little known and important piece of American history.
By F. Scott Fitzgerald Setting: Long Island, New York, 1922 First published 1925
Though not initially the most popular of the books written in the 1920s, a century later, The Great Gatsby is considered a classic of twentieth-century literature and a quintessential novel of the Jazz Age. The mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby, who is obsessed with the beautiful and unattainable debutante, Daisy Buchanan, plays host to lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted "gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession." The book paints a portrait of the Roaring Twenties, with all of its excess, idealism, and social upheaval.
The Book Girls say... Chances are you were assigned this book back in high school, but this is a classic worth a second read!
By Gemma Liviero Setting: England, 1922 First published 2020
Four years after Rudy lost his eldest brother, a British soldier, to the battlefields of France, Rudy's family is still torn apart by grief and secrets in the aftermath of WWI. When Mariette arrives claiming o be Edgar's widow, and he mother of his child, Rudy urges her to stay in hopes that she'll shed light on unanswered questions. But Mariette's revelations lead to more questions than answers, and suspicions threaten to further divide Rudy's family. Rudy sets out on a quest for the truth that takes him from England to France and beyond.
By David Grann Setting: 1920s Oklahoma First published 2017
This is a true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.
In the 1920s, thanks to oil discovered beneath their land, the members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma were the richest people per capita in the world. The Osage rode in chauffeured cars, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. But then, one by one, the Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances, and virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.
As the death toll continued to rise, the newly created FBI took up the case as their first major homicide investigation. But even the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Finally the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery with the help of an undercover team that included one of the only Native American agents in he bureau.
The Book Girls say... Melissa is excited to read this one because she lives in Tulsa, only about an hour from where they are filming the movie with the Osage tribe starting in March.
By Laura Moriarty Setting: Kansas and NYC, 1922 First published 2012
In 1922, only a few years before becoming a famous actress and an icon for her generation, a 15-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita to make it big in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by Cora Carlisle, a thirty-six-year-old chaperone who is neither mother nor friend.
Cora is a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip. She has no idea what she's in for. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together in 1920s New York City will change both of their lives forever.
By Marlowe Benn Setting: 1924, Manhattan First published 2019
Julia Kydd is a sophisticated book lover living in Manhattan with aspirations to launch her own new private press. She views women's suffrage as old news and believes life is too short for politics, but as a woman, she still must fight for what is hers, including the inheritance that her estranged half brother, Philip, is challenging.
When another woman, Naomi, an ardent suffragist from a wealthy family, dies of an apparent suicide, Julia is skeptical. Philip is skeptical but proposes a wager - if Julia can prove that Naomi was in fact murdered, he'll drop his claims to Julia's inheritance. Julia soon discovers just how turbulent Naomi'slife was, and as she gets closer to the truth, she realizes there is much more at stake than her inheritance.
by Deb Spera Setting: 1924, South Carolina First published 2018
Set in Branchville, South Carolina in 1924, this historical fiction novel tells the story of motherhood and womanhood. The story centers around three women at a crossroad - Gertrude, Retta, and Annie.
Gertrude, a mother of four, must make a difficult decision in order to save her daughters. Retta is a first-generation freed slave who comes to Gertrude's aid. And Annie, the matriarch of the influential Coles family, offers Gertrude a job.
Depsite having seemingly nothing in common, these three women unite to stand up to injustices that have long plagued the small town. This book is a a timeless story about the power of family, community, and ferocity of motherhood.
By M.L. Stedman Setting: Australia, 1926 First published 2012
After years fighting on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns home and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island, a half a day's journey from the west coast of Australia where supply boats only come once a season. During their years on the island, Tom and his wife, Isabel, suffer two miscarriages and a stillbirth. When a boat washes up on shore carrying a dead man and crying baby.
Against Tom's judgment, the couple claims the baby as their own and raise her on the island. Two years later, when the return to the mainland, they must face the reality of their choice.
The Book Girls say... Angela read this book a few years ago and was completely drawn in by the beautiful writing, the compelling characters, and the moral complexities of good people making bad decisions with the best of intentions.
by Marie Benedict Setting: England 1912, 1926 First published 2020
On a frigid night in December of 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie went missing for 11 days. England launched a manhunt after investigators found her car on the edge of a pond, empty but for her fur coat. The only clues were some tire tracks nearby. Both her husband and daughter are questions, but claim to have no knowledge of her whereabouts.
The questions about where she went and what she was doing have persisted for nearly a century, but in this historical fiction novel, Benedict imagines what may have occurred in a story filled with twists fitting of a Christie mystery.
By Toni Morrison Setting: 1926, Harlem, New York First published 1993
Jazz is the story of Joe Trace, a middle-aged door-to-door salesman who murders his 18-year-old mistress, Dorcas. At the funeral, his wife, Violet, attacks the girl's corpse.
Providing a different view of the time than many other books set in 1920s New York, this passionate story of love and obsession is filled with the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life in Harlem. Toni Morrison's prose gives this novel the same cadence and rhythm of the jazz music of the era.
By Sarah-Jane Stratford Setting: 1926, London First published 2016
After WWI, change is in the air. American-raised Maisie Musgrave is thrilled to land a job at the upstart British Broadcasting Company in London. Still new, strange, and electrifying, the BBC's use of radio is captivating the nation, and Maisie is seduced by the work. As she arranges broadcasts by the most famous writers, scientists, and politicians in Britain, she gains confidence in her work, but she also finds herself caught in a growing conflict between her two bosses who have very different visions of what radio should be.
When Maisie she unearths a shocking conspiracy, she joins forces with one of her bosses - Hilda Matheson - to make sure their voices are heard both on and off the air despite the dangerous consequences of telling the truth for a living.
by Robert Specht Setting: 1927, Alaska Originally published 1976
This is the true story of Anne Hobbs who arrived in harsh and beautiful Alaska in 1927, at the young age of nineteen. She quickly discovered that running a ramshackle schoolhouse would expose her to more than just the elements. After she allowed Native American children into her class and fell in love with a half-Inuit man, she learned the meanings of prejudice and perseverance, irrational hatred and unconditional love.
“People get as mean as the weather,” she discovered, but they were also capable of great good.
The Book Girls Say... Reviewers say that this memoir reads like fiction, which is the sign of a great story!
By Greg Grandin Setting: 1927, Brazilian Amazon First published 2009
In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. He planned to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon.
Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became he site of an epic clash between the car magnate and his knack for industrialized production, and the Amazon - the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford's early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers rejected his midwestern Puritanism and turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown.
By Fiona Davis Setting: New York, 1928 and 1974 First published 2018
For most New Yorkers, Grand Central Terminal is a masterpiece of architectural design, but for Clara and Virgina it represents something quite different.
For Clara, in 1928, teaching at the Grand Central School of Art is the stepping stone to her future. In a time when there is public disdain for a "woman artist," Clara is determined to succeed in her dream of creating cover art for Vogue. But she and her friends will soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression that may destroy the entire art scene.
In 1974, Grand Central has declined to a dangerous place full of pickpockets and drug dealers, and its at the center of a lawsuit that will decide if the terminal should be preserved or demolished. Virginia, who has recently taken a job in the Grand Central information booth, stumbles upon an abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor that opens her eyes to the elegance beneath the decay. She sets out to find the artist, and finds herself drawn into the battle to save Grand Central.
The Book Girls say... We both LOVE New York City, the beauty of Grand Central Station and art, so it's like Fiona Davis wrote this book for us. Melissa read it and enjoyed the combination of history, mystery, and even a little romance. The characters are based on real people, and it was interesting to walk in the shoes of a female artist in the 20s. We think those who enjoying reading about art history, 20s Manhattan, or women's equality will all love this one.
By McKelle George Setting: 1920s New York First published 2017
This YA fiction set on Long Island in the Roaring Twenties is a jazz age retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. After getting kicked out of boarding school, 17-year-old Beatrice goes to her uncle's estate on Long Island, where her cousin runs a struggling speakeasy in the basement. Told from multiple points of view, this is the story of six teenagers whose lives intertwine during a summer of romantic misunderstandings and dangerous deals.
Described as "hilariously clever and utterly charming," this YA novel set in the 1920s is filled with quick and hilarious banter that will keep readers of all ages turning the pages.
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