Discover the best books about the 1930s, a decade of great upheaval spanning from the Great Depression and the start of World War II.
When you think about the 1930s, you think of a world on the brink. Between the Great Depression and the start of the Second World War, the 1930s saw life move away from the joys of the Roaring Twenties into the chaos of the 1940s.
For the 2023 Reading Challenge, one of my prompts is to read books set in the 1930s. In many ways, life almost 100 years ago was completely different than our lives today, but in some ways, things remain just the same.
Today, I’ve put together a list of books about the 1930s. You’ll find something for everyone: fun 1930s historical fiction, nonfiction books about the 1930s, and even a few classic 1930s books worth a read.
Best Books About the 1930s
There’s a good reason that practically every school makes you read this book. Voted the Great American Read and considered one of the best coming-of-age novels, To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless classic that everyone should read. The story of young Scout and Jem watching their father, Atticus Finch, defend an innocent black man will make you want to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
In this intensely emotional coming-of-age book, Lisa Wingate bases her story on a notorious real-life scandal of an adoption agency that kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families. In 1939, twelve-year-old Rill Floss is asked to watch her four younger siblings while her father takes her mother to the hospital. Suddenly, a group of strangers arrives and takes Rill and her siblings to a Memphis-based orphanage where Rill must fight to keep her siblings together under the eye of the cruel director.
On New Year’s Eve 1937, Katey Kontent and her roommate Eve Ross meet a handsome young banker named Tinker Grey. Over the next year, Katey’s friendship with Tinker will introduce her to the upper echelons of Manhattan society, altering the course of her life. Of the books about 1930s, Rules of Civility stands out for its gorgeous prose and enveloping setting.
William Kent Krueger
In 1932, young orphan Odie O’Banion lives as one of the only white boys at the Lincoln School, a home for Native American children. A mean-spirited superintendent, who cares little for the children and especially loathes Odie, rules the school. One summer night, Odie flees the school in a canoe, along with his older brother, their best friend Mose, and a newly orphaned little girl. This sets up a river journey reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn.
In Red Hook, Brooklyn during the 1930s, Sofia and Antonia are best friends and neighbors, members of “The Family,” the local Italian mafia. When Antonia’s father is disappeared, a wedge develops between the girls that will affect them as they grow older and begin to question the demands of their “family.”
During a big summer party in 1933, a baby boy from a wealthy family disappears from the country estate. Now, seventy years later, a police detective starts to uncover the truth of what happened at the lake house. A gorgeous mystery written with Morton’s characteristic flare, The Lake House is one of my favorite books set in the 1930s.
While training to swim across the English Channel in 1934, Florence Adler drowns off the coast of Atlantic City. After the tragedy, her mother makes a fateful decision – to keep Florence’s death a secret from her other daughter Fannie, on bed rest for an extremely high-risk pregnancy. Rachel Beanland knocks it out of the park with this debut novel based on a true story from her family’s history.
Great Depression Books
In the Texas panhandle in 1934, severe drought plagues the land. With crops failing, dust storms whip up, leaving the farmers fighting for survival. In the perilous times of the Great Depression, Elsa Martinelli must decide whether to stay and fight for her land or head west to California which offers her family a better life. With her characteristically gorgeous storytelling, you’ll find yourself caught up in the disastrous calamity of the Dust Bowl and emotionally caught up in Elsa’s impossible decision.
Set during the Great Depression, Englishwoman Alice Wright marries a handsome American and finds herself transplanted to rural Kentucky. To escape her unhappy home life with her withdrawn husband and overbearing father-in-law, Alice agrees to become a traveling librarian, riding around the countryside bringing books to local residents. In her new job, she meets other fierce women and gains lasting friendships. Add in plenty of drama, love stories, corrupt businessmen, and even murder, and you have the perfect light historical fiction to read.
Kim Michele Richardson
During the Great Depression, the Pack Horse Library Project in rural Kentucky brought books to rural Kentuckians through horseback-writing librarians. Nineteen-year-old Cussy Carter, the last remaining member of the rare blue-skinned Appalachian people, must overcome the suspicions of the locals and win their friendship to fulfill her mission of delivering books.
Christina Baker Kline
On the verge of aging out of the child welfare system, Molly’s life is changed when she is assigned to do community service cleaning out the house of an elderly woman. Sorting through Vivian’s attic, Molly learns of Vivian’s childhood as a young Irish immigrant sent to the Midwest on an orphan train and realizes that they have the power to help each other understand their pasts.
If you are looking for children’s books about the 1930s, you should pick up a copy of this Newbery Medal winner. When her father sends her away for the summer while working a railroad job, Abilene Tucker runs away to Manifest, Kansas – her father’s hometown. When Abilene discovers a box of mementos, she sets out on a quest to discover the town’s secrets.
One summer day in 1934, 13-year-old Briony Tallis misunderstands a flirtation between her older sister and a neighborhood boy, with devastating consequences. Now, as World War II rages, an older Briony starts to realize the reality of what happened and the full repercussions she has caused. Can Briony find atonement or is it too late? No matter what you do, make sure to read until the very end, because the ending is what makes this one of those books that move you to rethink everything you just read.
A book narrated by Death might be off-putting at first, but quickly you’ll fall in love with this Young Adult WWII historical fiction. In 1939, Liesel Meminger is sent to live with foster parents in Munich. There she befriends the charming neighborhood boy Rudy and settles into a life of book thievery. Coming of age during the rise of the Nazis, Liesel and Rudy must face the complications of growing up in a dictatorship they hate.
When Japanese bombs start falling in Nanking in 1937, Hu Lian and her university classmates must walk 1,000 miles to safety in China’s interior. The group is given a secret task, to guard The Library of Legends, an ancient collection of myths. Along the way, Lian realizes that one of the tales from the Library of Legends seems to be awakening the spirits of the story.
Nancy Wake, a New Zealander living in Paris, becomes a spy for the British and rises to one of the top leaders of the French Resistance and one of the most decorated women of the war. This true story is split into two narratives – the first starting with Nancy parachuting into France in 1944 and the second telling of her courtship with her husband, Henri Fiocca, before the war. You’ll fall in love with Henri and cheer on Nancy as she transforms into a fierce fighter and respected commander. As the earlier timeline catches up with the later one, you’ll feel all the emotions of a woman caught up in a terrible war.
On the island of Jeju just off the Korean peninsula lives a society where women are the breadwinners. They are sea divers risking untold hazards to provide for their families from the ocean. Among them are best friends Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls just entering their village’s diving collective. Telling the account of their lives from the Japanese occupation in the 1930s, through World War II and the tumultuous aftermath up to the present, Lisa See’s historical fiction novel is a beautifully written account of friendship.
With the hope for peace still dangling before them, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain travels to Munich to meet one last time with Adolf Hitler in 1938. Behind the scenes, Chamberlain’s private secretary Guy Legat and his old school friend Rikard von Holz, an anti-Hitler member of the German foreign office, are set on a collision course.
Historical Fiction Set in the 1930s
A list of historical fiction books about the 1930s wouldn’t be complete without Gruen’s bestseller. Poor orphan Jacob Janowski never expected to find a home with the Benzini Brothers’ circus show. A veterinary student, Jacob is put in charge of the circus’s animals where he falls in love with an untrainable elephant and a gorgeous married equestrian star.
A semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain describes one day in the life of John Grimes, the fourteen-year-old stepson of a Pentecostal preacher in 1930s Harlem. As the backstories of John’s mother, biological father, and violent stepfather are revealed, John grapples with his desires versus his family’s expectations and Baldwin highlights the positive and negative influences of the church in their lives.
At the Cold Mountain Penitentiary, the death row inmates nervously await the walk down the Green Mile to Old Sparky, the electric chair. Paul Edgecombe has seen it all in his years as a prison guard, but nothing prepares him for John Coffey. With the body of a giant and the mind of a child, Coffey’s imprisoned for a heinous crime. The more Paul learns about Coffey, the more Coffey’s unexplained abilities will challenge everything he thought he knew.
After her older brother is run out of town, Luz Lopez is left to fend for herself in 1930s Denver. When she begins to have visions that transport her to her Indigenous homeland, she learns of the struggles of three generations of her family and finds she is the only one who can tell their story.
In 1930s Los Angeles, Lou wakes up in an alley with no memory of her past. Taken in by a caring foster family, the young Black woman dedicates herself to her education, until she meets the handsome firefighter whose face has been in her mind for years. Suspecting that she is actually an immortal, Lou must uncover the secrets of her past to save the present.
In the throes of a middle-aged crisis, Evelyn unexpectedly finds comfort from the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode. Mrs. Threadgoode tells her a fascinating tale of two women, Idgie and Ruth, who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe in Alabama in the 1930s – an era of hard luck, racism, small-town problems, lots of laughter, and the occasional murder.
In a spinoff of her bestseller These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong returns to 1930s Shanghai with a tale of dueling spies. After an experiment makes her ageless and immortal, Rosalind Chang becomes a spy for her country hoping to redeem her traitorous past. When the Japanese are suspected of a series of murders, Rosalind must go undercover posing as the wife of another spy to investigate a series of murders.
Nonfiction Books About the 1930s
Daniel James Brown
In a sport dominated by elite East Coast schools, a group of young men, sons of dockworkers, loggers, and farmers, at the University of Washington rowed to the Olympic Gold Medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Led by an enigmatic coach and aided by a visionary boat builder, the nine working-class boys came together with determination and commitment to become world champions. One of my favorite book recommendations, Boys in the Boats is one of the books about the 1930s you must not miss.
In 1938, the single biggest newsmaker was not Hitler or Mussolini, but the crooked-legged racehorse Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand details how such an unlikely hero became an American icon. When Charles Howard wanted to own racehorses, he allied himself with Tom Smith, a mysterious mustang breaker from Colorado, and Red Pollard, a half-blind former boxer turned jockey, in a partnership that would transform bad luck and injury into an inspirational success story.
If you like chilling true crime books about the 1930s, Daniel Stashower’s latest book is just what you need. In 1934, a day at the beach turned gruesome when beachgoers discovered the lower half of a woman’s body. The first of a dozen victims, for four years Cleveland was gripped in terror by a serial killer who butchered and dismembered his victims. Stashower’s account details the horror of the city and the determination of Eliot Ness to capture the killer.
Classics 1930s Books
Steinbeck’s epic on the Great Depression is a must-read classic book. After being released from prison, Tom Joad finds his family crippled by the Dust Bowl and ready to give the promise of California a try. Instead, the Joad family finds the harsh realities for migrants and begins to fall apart as they each handle the injustices of life in different ways.
When Addie Bundren dies, her family attempts to carry out her last request, to be buried in her hometown, despite their poverty. Narrated by fifteen different characters, As I Lay Dying follows the family’s trek and looks at each individual’s motivations, making it an experimental and critically-acclaimed novel.
Zora Neale Hurston
Although mostly overlooked during her life, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has had a well-deserved resurgence in popularity in the last few decades. Hurston’s classic recounts the life of Janie Crawford through her three marriages and journey of self-discovery. Throughout the novel, Hurston makes you consider marriage, gender roles, and what makes a liberated woman.
If you want a quick classic mystery, Agatha Christie is the way to go. You’ll have fun trying to figure out whodunit on an isolated island mansion where the suspects start dying off one by one. I’ll be impressed if you figure it out. I never do. A classic for a reason, this novel is surprisingly short, leaving you plenty to read even more books set in the 1930s.
Daphne du Maurier
Working as a lady’s maid in Monte Carlo, the narrator is swept off her feet by the handsome widower Maxim de Winter. After a rushed courtship and impulsive marriage, she returns as his wife to his beautiful estate, Manderley. Yet, she quickly learns she is not the true mistress of the estate, as the household will not let her forget the memory of Rebecca, de Winter’s first wife who drowned the year before.
In 1930s Chicago, when a Black teen accidentally kills a white woman, his life spirals as he attempts to hide his crime and escape from the police. With timeless writing, Wright points out the hypocrisy of white philanthropists and the lack of opportunity and racial dynamics that are systemically oppressing the Black community.
Which Books About the 1930s Are You Most Interested in Reading?
What do you think? Do you enjoy reading books about the Great Depression or the early days of WWII? What 1930s books would you recommend? As always, let me know in the comments!