Unforgettable Dust Bowl Books

Novels & non-fiction books about the Dust Bowl and its effects give readers around the world an opportunity to understand this tumultuous time in American history.

We believe educating ourselves about difficult events in history is the best way to avoid repeating them. It’s also helpful to understand the overwhelming things other generations experienced to put our own struggles into perspective.

What Was the American Dust Bowl?

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was one of the most defining periods in American history. The ecological and human tragedy was brought about by a relentless drought and years of poor agricultural practices.

Together, these factors caused huge dust storms to ravage the Great Plains region of the United States. The dust enveloped everything and made it impossible to farm and difficult to breathe. The situation was made even more difficult by the overlap of the Great Depression. It amplified the financial struggles of the region and made loans even harder to arrange.

Most farmers tried to survive in their homes as long as possible. However, by 1936, the unlivable conditions had forced 2.5 million people to leave the drought-stricken areas. The affected Great Plains states included large portions of Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, along with eastern New Mexico & Colorado. Many of those who left their homes traveled west, where they encountered new hardships.

Books About the Dust Bowl

While this topic can be tough, we hope you find learning about the Dust Bowl valuable. In addition to reading books from this list, we’ve heard great things about the two-part Ken Burns documentary. It is available for streaming as of 3/19/2024.

The books on this list are generally geared toward adult readers, there are a couple of YA & middle-grade options mentioned within the descriptions. These are perfect if you want to read along with a teen in your life.

Mary Coin book cover

Book Summary

This historical fiction novel was inspired by a famous photograph of a young mother resting on the side of the road in Central California. Photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1936, little information was exchanged between her and the subject of her photo.

Dorothea’s photos documented the migrant workers who fled the midwest Dust Bowl and flocked to Central California in search of work. This photo, in particular, became an iconic image of the Great Depression.

In this novel, author Marisa Silver creates a fictionalized story about the woman in the photograph, who she calls Mary, the photographer, who she calls Vera, and a present-day professor of cultural history who discovers a family mystery embedded in the photo.

Grapes of Wrath book cover

Book Summary

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 the promise of a better life in California. But when they finally arrive at their destination, the worst rumors prove true.

Despite facing constant setbacks and hardships, the Joads and their fellow travelers refuse to give up, relying on their own resourcefulness and mutual support to survive. This message of hope in the face of overwhelming adversity is a fitting theme for readers looking to find inspiration and strength in difficult times.

The Book Girls Say…

Steinbeck writes vivid descriptions of the harsh conditions and the struggles of the migrant workers. His work made this book a powerful indictment of the social and economic injustices of the time. The Grapes of Wrath is also notable for its portrayal of the resilience and determination of the human spirit.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

30 Best Classic Books According to Our Readers

Dust Bowl Orphans book cover

Book Summary

Faith Wilson and her family were fleeing Oklahoma in hopes of a better life in California. When a massive dust storm causes 15-year-old Faith and her little sister, Hope, to be separated from their parents, she doesn’t know how they’ll survive. In addition to the terrible Dust Bowl conditions, the sisters are also faced with racial prejudice and segregation as they search for a safe place to stay and a way to survive. 

In present-day California, Zoe is recovering from a difficult divorce and still mourning the loss of a child. Trying to distract herself, she throws herself into work cataloging photos for an exhibition. She’s shocked to come across an old photo of a teenage girl who looks remarkably like her. Zoe’s knowledge of her family history is filled with many holes, and she wonders if this photograph might hold the key to unraveling some of those secrets.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 03/13/2024
Four Winds book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

As the Dust Bowl drought gripped the Great Plains, millions were out of work, crops failed, water dried up, and farmers fought 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. 

Like so many of her neighbors, Elsa courageously faces the hardships and sacrifices that came to define an entire generation during the Great Depression as they fought for the American Dream.

The Book Girls Say…

We love books that truly transport you to another time and place, and few books do that quite as well as The Four Winds. You will feel the dirt and the direness that so many experienced.

We knew people from Oklahoma and Texas fled looking for a better life in California during the Dust Bowl years, but this novel opened our eyes to how poorly they were treated and how much they were discriminated against when they arrived, no matter how hard they were willing to work.

Whose Names are Unknown book cover

Book Summary

This book first came to our attention when Kristin Hannah mentioned it in the acknowledgments of her Dust Bowl novel, The Four Winds. Upon further research, we were fascinated to learn that Whose Names Are Unknown was first written in 1939, and was slated for publication that same year. 

Unfortunately, Random House decided to shelve the novel after John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath became an instant best seller in April of 1939. 

The publisher felt that since Steinbeck had already explored the topic, there wasn’t room for a second book on the same subject matter. However, what Babb didn’t know at the time was that an editor at Random House had shared some of her notes with Steinbeck to aid in his research for The Grapes of Wrath.

In 2004, the University of Oklahoma Press published the novel when Babbs was 97 years old.

Sanora Babb’s novel is based on her personal experiences as a migrant from Oklahoma and a volunteer with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which helped migrant farmers flooding into California. 

While Steinbeck’s novel focuses more on the experiences of migrant workers in California, Babb’s book dives deeper into the life of a farming family struggling to survive in Oklahoma before migrating to California.

The Book Girls Say…

If you choose this book, you may also be interested in this article from the Smithsonian about Sanora Babb.

Dust Bowl Girls book cover

Book Summary

This non-fiction tells the true story of a women’s basketball team that overcame all odds and brought something positive to a struggling community.

In the early 1930s, Sam Babb traveled from farm to farm near the tiny Oklahoma college where he coached. The growing Dust Bowl conditions were devastating farming families, but Coach Babb offered hope. 

At a time when women’s sports were largely considered unhealthy and unladylike, Coach Babb recruited young women and offered them a chance at a better life. He promised them a free college education in exchange for joining his basketball team. 

As the women discovered a passion for the game, the team began to win. And they just kept winning. Their improbable journey took them all the way to the national championship game.

The Book Girls Say…

Described as The Boys in the Boat meets A League of Their Own, this sports story paints a vivid picture of life during this time period.

Half Broke Horses book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

99% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Lily Casey was born in Texas in 1901 and learned about ranching from her father. By the age of 6, she was helping him break horses. And at the age of just 15, she left home and rode over 500 miles alone on her pony to take a job as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Arizona. 

Lily married and raised two children on a vast Arizona ranch, but she never lost her adventurous spirit. She learned to repair cars and how to fly a plane. She survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and personal tragedy. Throughout her life, Lily pushed back against any kind of prejudice – whether it be against women, Native Americans, or anyone else who didn’t fit the expected mold. 

The Book Girls Say…

Author Jeannette Walls is most well-known for her memoir, The Glass Castle. Half Broke Horses is a novelistic re-creation of her maternal grandmother’s life. Although she wrote The Glass Castle first, if you haven’t already read it, we recommend reading Half Broke Horses first because it provides so much context for how Jeannette’s mother, Rosemary, came to be the woman she was.

Readers have noted specifically enjoying the author’s narration.

Worst Hard Time book cover

Book Summary

In 2006, historian Timothy Egan wrote this powerful book documenting the struggles of ordinary people during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This non-fiction title shares what it was really like for a dozen different families who lived through this environmental disaster. Equally important, you’ll see their resilience in the face of extreme hardship.

Drawing on harrowing accounts and vivid accounts of the immense destruction and suffering of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time provides an in-depth look at the decade-long disaster that changed the face of America.

The Book Girls Say…

When this book was published, Melissa’s husband was told by a family member that it was the closest account of how his grandfather lived as a child and young adult. 

While it’s not a quick and easy read, it’s an accurate look at this time and region and a cautionary tale of what can happen when we don’t respect nature.

For another in-depth non-fiction read, try Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s by Donald Worster.

Learning to See book cover

Book Summary

Photojournalist Dorothea Lange created some of the most iconic photos of the 20th century. She is best known for her work in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl. In this riveting historical fiction, we get to see the world through her lens.

Dorothea arrived in San Francisco at 22, determined to make her way independently as a woman. However, she soon married a talented but volatile painter, Maynard Dixon. By the early 30s, her marriage was floundering as much as the economy. So, she took to the road with her camera, creating images that inspired, reformed, and defined the era.

The Book Girls Say…

While we weren’t very familiar with Dorothea Lange before finding this book, we’ve seen one of her most famous works, Migrant Mother, many times. It’s a lasting reminder of the human suffering that came during the Dust Bowl years. We can’t wait to learn more about the woman who bravely captured this history in a way that helps us better understand it nearly 100 years later.

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

Books Set in the 1930s

Rainwater book cover

Book Summary

In this historical romance, Ella Baron is an independent, single mom running a Texas boarding house. When a room opens up at her boarding house, the town doctor suggests that she rent the room to a handsome newcomer named Mr. David Rainwater.

Rainwater is a former cotton broker and a victim of the Great Depression. Ella is hesitant to rent a room to a stranger, but the doctor assures her of Mr. Rainwater’s character. He also explains that Rainwater won’t require the room for very long because he’s terminally ill. 

Soon, life in Ella’s small town begins to shift. Cotton is drying into dust, and the looming Dust Bowl places a growing financial strain on everyone. Add in racial tensions and political instability, and it all combines to create a dangerous tornado on the horizon. Ella is used to being in control of everything in her life, but will the chaotic historic circumstances crack and crumble everything she’s built?

Kindle Unlimited as of: 03/13/2024
Stars of Alabama book cover

Book Summary

Set during the Great Depression, this historical fiction novel weaves together several different storylines with a diverse cast of interesting characters.

When Marigold got pregnant at 15, her family abandoned her and left her to fend for herself amid the Great Depression. Homeless and desperate, she leaves the baby in the forest while she goes in search of food, but when she returns, the baby is nowhere to be found. 

Her baby was found by two migrant workers, Vern and Paul. Unable to find the baby’s mother, they begin to care for her. Then they meet up with a widow and her two children, forming the misfit family they all desperately need.

A 14-year-old boy named Coot – a child preacher with a memory that makes him a prodigy – is all alone. With thousands of dollars in stolen money, and as dust storms rage across Kansas, Coot is determined to reach Mobile, Alabama.

As the years pass and WWII looms, these stories intersect and intertwine in unexpected ways. And when the dust settles, they can still see the stars.

The Book Girls Say…

Sean Dietrich is also the author of The Incredible Winston Browne, which our readers voted one of their favorite books of 2022.

Persian Pickle Club book cover

Book Summary

If you’re looking for a lighter read set in the Dust Bowl era, The Persian Pickle Club brings you into the lives of gossipy quilters in a Kansas farming town. While crops are suffering from the ongoing drought and the job market is just as dry, a young farmer’s wife finds her weekly respite in the quilting club. 

But when a new club member stirs up a big secret, the women must unite in a new way to protect each other.

The Book Girls Say…

HEADS UP: This novel includes several casual racist references (including n-word) reflective of the prejudiced views of the era.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

West With Giraffes is a charming tale of adventure that takes you on the ride of a lifetime from the East Coast of the US to the West, alongside a rowdy 17-year-old, a grumpy older man, and two giraffes. The year is 1938, and no American zoo has successfully housed giraffes before. The female zoo director of the San Diego Zoo believes she can do it. The giraffes have just survived a hurricane en route to the East Coast, and Riley Jones, the curmudgeonly head zookeeper, is responsible for safely transporting the giraffes from New York City to San Diego.

America is still in the throes of the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl conditions continue to ravage the drought-stricken Southern Plains states. A coast-to-coast trek with giant animals is no easy feat. Jones begrudgingly teams up with a starving teenager named Woody to help him make the journey. The adventures along the way include run-ins with circus con artists, being tailed by a female photographer looking for a big scoop, an emotional visit to Woody’s hometown, and so much more.

At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story. Now, at the age of 105, Woody recounts his 12-day cross-country trip with Jones and the giraffes and how it shaped his life.

The Book Girls Say…

After we both gave this book 5 stars, we recommended it to others in a variety of age ranges. Everyone else has loved it too! In fact, Angela’s husband recently listened to the audiobook, and her 10 and 11-year-old sons begged to listen with him. It’s now a family favorite!

From the insights it gives to life across America in the late 1930s to the growing relationships between characters, including the humans and the giraffes, we can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Kindle Unlimited as of: 03/05/2024

Also Featured on These Book Lists:

West with Giraffes Book Club Questions & Guide
Books About Traveling Across America
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Readers’ Favorite Books: 2023 Edition
PS: We also have a printable West with Giraffes book club guide available on Etsy, including discussion questions, bonus giraffe content, a custom bookmark, and more!

I Will Send Rain book cover

Book Summary

As the wheat crops dry out and the early storms of the Dust Bowl descend on Mulehead, Oklahoma, the Bell family faces many hardships. Matriarch Annie can’t escape the dust – it’s in her hair, covering the surfaces of her home, and coating the animals in the barn. 

Her husband, Samuel, can’t escape his disturbing dreams about rain. Her young son, Fred, is suffering from dust pneumonia; and her daughter, Birdie, is in love for the first time and desperate for a path out of Mulehead. Annie, too, is desperate for an escape as she flirts with an unlikely admirer.

Set against the bleak backdrop of the Dust Bowl, this is the story of a family and their community facing challenges with grit, determination, and hope.

If It Rains book cover

Book Summary

This novel tells the story of 14-year-old Kathryn Baile, who is coming of age amid some very serious challenges. Not only was she growing up during the Great Depression in a state ravaged by Dust Bowl conditions, but she was also born with a severe clubfoot. 

After her beloved older sister marries and moves out, Kathryn’s only escape is into the pages of her favorite book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Kathryn’s dad decides they should relocate to Indianapolis, where she can have surgery to make her “normal.” But when disaster strikes along the way, Kathryn is left to try to complete the journey on her own.

Meanwhile, back in Oklahoma, Kathryn’s sister, Melissa, has just married into the most affluent family in the town of Boise City. But the mounting pressure of the Dust Bowl ultimately reveals her husband’s true colors, leaving her trying to hide her bruises from the neighbors.

The Book Girls Say…

For another Christian Fiction book set during the Dust Bowl, try Cup of Dust, the first book in the Pearl Spence series. Throughout the book, ten-year-old Pearl Spence uses her vivid imagination to escape the reality of her family’s difficult Dust Bowl existence. 

Kindle Unlimited as of: 03/13/2024
Midnight at the Electric book cover

Book Summary

This YA novel explores three distinct timelines, including one in the future. The book spans generations, starting in 1919 England, as Europe tries to recover from WWI. Lenore is grief-stricken by her brother’s death and is preparing to sail to the US to find a childhood friend. 

In 1934 Oklahoma, Catherine’s situation is getting desperate. The persistent dust is threatening her sister’s life. Can Catherine find the courage to make the extreme sacrifice required to save her sister’s life? 

In the future (2065), Adri has been selected as one of the first to live on Mars. But when she finds the journal of someone who lived in her home over 100 years ago, she becomes preoccupied with finding out more. How is she connected to the mystery in the past. And is the country at risk of repeating mistakes of the past?

The Book Girls Say…

For another YA perspective on the Dust Bowl, consider Under the Dirt Sky by Callie J. Trautmiller. It covers the lives of two teens in the Roaring 20s leading up to and at the beginning of the Dust Bowl. 

For middle-grade reading, consider Newberry Award winner Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse or the highly-rated graphic novel The Great American Dust Bowl.

House of Earth book cover

Book Summary

Folk-singing legend Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912 and witnessed the Dust Bowl firsthand. He spent his life writing songs about the plights of common people, especially during the Great Depression. In 1947, he wrote a novel about a couple trying to make a life for themselves in the Texas Panhandle. However, his novel wasn’t published until 2003, well after his death. 

The main characters, Tike and Ella, live in a wood shack, but dream of a more sturdy home. They plan to build an adobe home that will keep out the wind and dust, but forces beyond their control keep the dream just out of reach. However, in a weird twist, Woody also covers the sex life of the couple, which is a big downside for some reviewers. 

If you’re up for a bit of an avant-garde Dust Bowl book written by a musician who experienced it, this could be a fascinating read. However, if you’re looking for a more straightforward or clean title, skip this one.

The Book Girls Say…

There is also a highly-rated graphic novel called Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads that tells the story of Guthrie’s time in the Dust Bowl.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

99% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Inspired by the true events of Operation Paperclip, this historical fiction novel tells the story of the US intelligence program that employed former Nazis in Huntsville, Alabama after WWII.

The story begins in Berlin in 1930. Changing political powers are sweeping through Germany. Sofie von Meyer Rhodes and her husband, Jürgen, are concerned with the social views taking hold in their country. But her academic husband’s work benefits from the ambitions of the newly elected chancellor. Soon, however, their morality is challenge and they realize that neutrality has a price.

At the same time, Lizzie Miller is living in the Texas panhandle during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The future looks bleak as their farm dries up. And that’s all before her brother, Henry, is called to Germany to fight in WWII.

Twenty years later in the 1950s, Jürgen is one of the many German scientists who is offered a pardon for their part in WWII in exchange for working on the fledgling space program in the US. Sofie welcomes the chance for a fresh start in a new country, but she soon finds that her Huntsville neighbors aren’t as welcoming or forgiving of her family’s past as she’d hoped.

Jürgen’s boss at the US space program is Calvin Miller, Lizzie’s husband. This is where the two women’s stories collide.

The Book Girls Say…

Kelly Rimmer is the author of one of our very favorite WWII historical fiction reads, The Things We Cannot Say, so we had high expectations for this book. Those expectations were far exceeded!

Even if you read a lot of WWII novels, we’re certain this novel will offer you a new perspective. It draws unexpected parallels across the decades, and it will leave you contemplating how history will reflect on the events of our lifetime.

Additional Historical Fiction Book Recommendations

If you enjoy historical fiction, be sure to check out our Decades Reading Challenge. It guides readers through books from the late 1800s to the early 2000s. For specific book recommendations, we included an index of some of our other historical fiction lists below.


Comments on: Unforgettable Dust Bowl Books

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  1. Jeanne Pollard says:

    A Newbery Award winning book was missed. Karen Hesse wrote this gem, Out of the Dust.

    1. Melissa George says:

      Hi Jeanne, it’s recommended in the description of Midnight at the Electric along with other middle grade & YA titles.

  2. Nancy Stalder says:

    Couldn’t find a place to comment on the Dust Bowl list. I live in the OK panhandle, the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. Thanks for the list. I would add WORST HARD TIMES by Timothy Egan. The museum’s director said to add Donald Worster’s THE DUST BOWL: THE SOUTHERN PLAINS IN THE 1930s.
    Both are nonfiction.

    1. Melissa George says:

      Hi Nancy, we agree with the Worst Hard Time being a great non-fiction pick – it’s the 4th book on the list. Thanks for the Worster recommendations – we just added it to the description of The Worst Hard Time as an additional non-fiction option. PS: We hope you get rain soon in the panhandle. Melissa’s yard in NE Oklahoma is currently flooded, but she knows things are very dry on your side of the state.