Explore the best books about the 1950s, a decade marked by a booming post-war economy but also growing fear as the Cold War began.
When you think about the 1950s, you think of the booming post-war economy and the rise of the middle class, but along with the effect of a more affluent society came the terrifying fear as a Cold War brewed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the fifties.
You see this divisiveness in books set in the 1950s with characters trying to find their place in this new post-world war era.
Today, I’ve put together a list of books about the 1950s. You’ll find something for everyone: fun 1950s historical fiction, nonfiction books about the 1950s, and even a few classic 1950s books worth a read.
Best Books About the 1950s
Tom Rob Smith
In 1950s Communist Russia, MGB officer Leo Demidov never wavers from the Party Line. Until his confidence is shaken when he investigates the brutal murder of a young boy. After watching an innocent neighbor tortured, Demidov is then asked the impossible: to arrest his own wife. Now he must choose where his loyalties lie as the child killings continue. A fun historical mystery that you won’t regret adding to your reading list.
Known for taking on almost forgotten historical settings, Sepetys tackles another dark period of history. Despite its fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Spain continues to allure tourists in the late 1950s. Ready to embrace his mother’s Heritage through photography, Texan Daniel Matheson arrives in Madrid full of hope. When he meets Ana, one of the hotel maids, his life irrevocably changes. Within the truth about Franco’s reign and the lasting repercussions of the Spanish Civil War, Ruta Sepetys mixes family drama, love, and heartbreak into a fascinating historical setting.
For years, Kya Clark has survived alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. Dubbed “The Marsh Girl” by the locals, she raised herself in nature after her family abandoned her. Now, as she comes of age, she begins to yearn for something more than her loneliness – maybe even a connection with the locals. A top-notch book club recommendation, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those books about the 1950s that extends into the 1960s.
In 1959, Baptist preacher Nathan Price moves his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo as missionaries. Expecting to civilize the locals, they instead realize they are calamitously unprepared for post-colonial Africa. Over the next decades, the Price family finds themselves completely changed by their experiences.
William Kent Krueger
In 1958, Sheriff Brody Dern investigates the murder of a wealthy landowner in a small Minnesota town. The rumor mill is quickly ablaze, accusing Noah Bluestone of the murder, a Native American WWII vet who just returned to town with his new Japanese bride. As Brody tries to find the truth, the physical and emotional wounds from World War II bring up old grievances in the community.
Book Club Books About the 1950s
Marilynne Robinson’s novel takes the reader into the mind of Reverend John Ames, a pastor of a small congregation in Gilead, Iowa. Written in the form of his journal, Ames wants to create a record for his 7-year-old son about his family history – his own experiences and those of his father and grandfather. If you want great books about the 1950s that sweep you in, try the entire Gilead series.
On the remote San Piedro Island in the Puget Sound, Japanese American Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with the murder of a local fisherman found mysteriously drowned. During the trial, San Piedro is forced to reconcile with its dark past, an entire community of Japanese Americans forced into exile during World War II.
In the early 1950s, four large extended families are trying to find their footing in a newly independent India. Mrs. Rupa Mehra has decided that her daughter Lata, a university student, needs to be married. Though finding a suitable boy for Lata becomes a whole family affair in this epic tale.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
In 1950s San Francisco, Vivian is ecstatic when her three daughters begin to make a name for themselves as the singing girl group, The Salvations. Although Vivian has arranged a once-in-a-lifetime chance for The Salvations, her daughters have begun to grow up and have desires of their own. As the neighborhood begins gentrifying, Vivian struggles to maintain control even when her past comes back to threaten her.
In post-World War II Japan, Nori, the illegitimate daughter of a Japanese aristocrat and a Black American GI, is hidden away on her grandmother’s estate to conceal the family shame. All Nori knows is the attic she is confined to until she meets her legitimate half-brother, Akira, a boy who shows her the world contains so much more. One of my favorite books about the 1950s, this complicated story about shame and the need for acceptance would be a perfect choice for any book club.
After suffering a dark and disturbing childhood, Ruby escapes her hometown to New York City. Years later, she returns home to her small East Texas town and is not sure if she can escape again, even with the help of an old friend. Ruby offers a contrast between the darkest parts of human nature and the redeeming acts of love. Warning: Ruby contains many graphic depictions of violence.
Bestselling Books on the 1950s
Taylor Jenkins Reid
At 87 years old, Hollywood bombshell Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to reveal her story – all the salacious details of her unapologetic life. Everyone is clamoring to know about her rise to stardom and, more importantly, about her seven husbands. Probably one of the most clever book titles I’ve ever seen, you’ll enjoy this story of a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara.
After spending a year at a prison work farm for involuntary manslaughter, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson returns to his Nebraska hometown. With his mother gone and his father recently deceased, Emmett plans to pick up his eight-year-old brother and head West. But his plans are derailed when two friends from the work farm suddenly appear with a scheme of their own.
Fleeing an abusive marriage, Lakshmi rebuilds a life for herself as the most coveted henna artist in all of Jaipur in the 1950s. A confidante to the wealthy women of the town, Lakshmi is known as a vault of secrets. When she is unexpectedly made her sister’s guardian, Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world is suddenly thrown off-balance.
In the third Archer Book, private investigator Aloysius Archer has his celebrations with actress Liberty Callahan interrupted on New Year’s Eve in 1953. Screenwriter Eleanor Lamb wants to hire Archer to investigate the suspicious happenings in her life; a series of phone calls, a suspicious car, and then a bloody knife left in her house. When Eleanor disappears and a body is found in her house, Archer must unravel the dark secrets in Hollywood.
When the grandmother who raised her ends up in the hospital after a fall, Jess rushes back from London to Sydney to take care of her. While going through her grandmother’s house, Jess discovers a true crime book detailing the suspicious deaths of a mother and her children on Christmas Eve in 1959. As any journalist would, Jess begins to look into the mystery and the surprising connections to her family’s history.
Cold War Books
With the Cold War raging, two secretaries are tasked by the CIA to smuggle Doctor Zhivago out of the USSR. Sally Forrester is a seasoned spy who knows exactly how to charm secrets out of powerful men. A complete novice, Irina desperately wants to learn the craft from Sally in this fun book about the 1950s inspired by a true story.
In 1948, the US is shocked when an American diplomat, his wife Iris, and their two children vanish from London. Four years later, Ruth Macallister receives a note that her estranged twin sister Iris is in Moscow. Now Ruth must pose as the wife of a counterintelligence agent to retrieve Iris’s family from behind the Iron Curtain, while also evading a dogged Soviet KGB officer.
Former war correspondent Ian Graham has become disillusioned from journalism and instead has decided to take up hunting for a notorious Nazi war criminal – The Huntress. Along the way, he teams up with the sole witness – Nina Markova, a former Russian pilot – to find the Huntress hiding in America. A fun 1950s book with a cat-and-mouse hunt, The Huntress is sure to thrill.
At the height of World War II, Rosalind Porter was an eminent physicist working on the Manhattan Project caught in a passionate affair with a colleague. Five years later, she’s living an obscure and heartbroken life in Chicago. When the FBI asks her to help investigate the sale of nuclear secrets and her old flame suddenly wants to reconnect, Rosalind gets caught in a sexy Cold War spy game.
Thrilling Books Set in the Fifties
If a gothic thriller that blends historical fantasy and horror and is set in 1950s Mexico sounds intriguing, you need to read Mexican Gothic. Noemí Taboada receives a frantic letter from her cousin accusing her new husband of trying to poison her. To help, Noemí travels to their estate in the Mexican countryside. She doesn’t fear her cousin’s husband or father-in-law, or the creepy house that is giving her nightmares, but should she?
Simone St. James
In 1950, four roommates become friends as whispers of a ghost haunt the halls of their rural Vermont boarding school. When a body is found in 2014, a young journalist haunted by the murder of her sister dives into history and begins to question her sister’s death. If you want thriller books set in the 1950s, be sure to check out this spooky read.
Growing up, Marisol Ferrera was always enthralled by tales of her grandmother, who fled Cuba during the Revolution. Her grandmother, the daughter of a sugar baron, lived a sheltered life until she began an affair with a passionate revolutionary. After her grandmother dies, Marisol Ferrera travels to Havana to spread her ashes where she meets a handsome stranger and learns lessons from her grandmother’s past.
In 1959, everyone in a Swedish mining town mysteriously vanished. Police only found the body of a woman stoned to death in the town square and a crying baby. Now, filmmaker Alice Lindstedt sets out to make a documentary and hopefully solve the mystery of what happened to the village, and her grandmother’s family. An atmospheric read, The Lost Village envelopes you in a sense of dread as the small group explores the abandoned village and feels like they are being watched.
In 1956, Marion learns that being a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall is much more demanding than she imagined. When a bomb explodes in the theater, Marion urges the police to try a new technique: psychological profiling. As she gets caught up in the investigation, Marion realizes that she might be putting herself and those she loves at terrifying risk.
In her imaginative historical fantasy story, Kelly Barnhill details the Mass Dragoning of 1955. In a shocking event, hundreds of thousands of ordinary mothers and wives transform into dragons and fly away. Was it by choice and where did they go? Alex can’t stop wondering about it after her beloved aunt is involved, but the subject is taboo though the consequences to her family are far-reaching.
More Books Set in the 1950s
Bestselling author Louise Erdrich writes about her grandfather’s life and his fight against Native dispossession in North Dakota. A night watchman at the local jewel bearing factory, Thomas Wazhashk is also a Chippewa council member, realizes the “emancipation” bill Congress is discussing in 1955 will negatively impact the Native American community. Meanwhile, Patrice Paranteau leaves the reservation to search for her sister in Minneapolis only to find a whole new level of exploitation and violence towards Native Americans.
Edie Howard, the owner of the struggling Blue Lion hotel, sees salvation to his problems on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation day since the new queen’s parade will pass right in front of the hotel. A young photographer and an Indian artist, both residents of the hotel, also hope to use the coronation to buoy their careers. When threats are made against the hotel and the queen, the three must solve the mystery before Coronation Day.
Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Raised by her grandparents in rural Kentucky, Icy Sparks is a bright and vivacious child. But when she turns ten, Icy finds herself unable to control her groans, physical spasms, and verbal croaks. Icy struggles to find herself in this coming-of-age tale of a girl with undiagnosed Tourette’s Syndrome in the 1950s.
In 1959, the Garrett family takes their first (and last) vacation as their tenuous bonds seem to be falling apart. Mercy is struggling with her desire to break out of motherhood and become a painter. Meanwhile sisters Alice and Lily seem to have nothing in common anymore and their younger brother David seeks to escape for reasons unknown to the family. Told over the ensuing decades, French Braid is an exploration of how interweaving bonds between family members affect people throughout their lives.
Classic 1950s Books
J. D. Salinger
A classic tale of teenage angst, The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden Caulfield after he’s been expelled from school, again. Bouncing around New York City, Holden gives his opinion on anything and everything as he narrates his life. A classic coming-of-age book set in the 1950s, The Catcher in the Rye is written in a disjointed fashion, following along with Holden’s thoughts.
With its focus on the message of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, East of Eden is often considered one of Steinbeck’s greatest novels. Set in the Salinas Valley of California, the story follows Adam Trask, a wealthy man whose troubles with his brother are paralleled in his own twin sons. Covering the power of love and the pain of its absences, East of Eden is enduring classic literature for your to-read list.
Vladimir Nabokov’s provocative classic tells of Humbert Humbert, a man who falls hopelessly in love with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze. Marrying Mrs. Haze just to be close to Dolores, Humbert eventually sexually abuses his stepdaughter, whom he nicknames “Lolita.” A beautifully written story about a deplorable subject, Lolita is one of the most controversial books published in the 1950s.
Who is John Galt? Ayn Rand’s modern classic tells the (extremely long) tale of Dagny Taggart, an heir to the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad who will do anything she can to keep her family’s railroad running. As Dagny and fellow industrialist Henry Reardon struggle to stay afloat amid public outcry against greed, industry, and productivity, Rand uses her story to explain her philosophy of Objectivism.
When two strangers meet on a train, everyday life becomes anything but ordinary. A successful architect in the middle of a divorce, Guy Haines happens to sit next to Charles Anthony Bruno on the train. Bruno, a total psychopath, manages to convince Haines to “swap murders” so they can each get away scot-free in this psychological thriller that was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name.
In a far distant future, psycho-historian Hari Seldon has analyzed the cycle of history and realizes that after twelve thousand years in power, the Galactic Empire is headed toward collapse. A collapse that will spawn 30,000 years of Dark Ages. To prevent complete disaster and shorten this dark period, Seldon sets up Foundation – a planet on the edge of the galaxy to contain the best minds with all the knowledge of humanity. At crucial junctures in history, Seldon has set up steps to sway the course of events to protect the fledgling Foundation. Considered one of the best science-fiction books of all time, Isaac Asimov shines in this classic tale.
How much does higher intelligence contribute to living a better life? The tale of a mentally disabled man who undergoes an experiment that increases his IQ to an insanely high level will make you ponder the benefits and drawbacks of both high and low intelligence. Keep tissues handy, it’s a book that will make you cry.
Nonfiction Books About the 1950s
Melba Patillo Beals
We’ve all seen the pictures of Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at as she tries to attend her first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, but did you realize how long it took to integrate the school? Melba Pattillo Beals tells her memories of being part of the Little Rock Nine: of her oppressing junior year protected at times by the 101st Airborne Division and at times left alone to face the horrors laid upon them by the other students.
Truman Capote was the founder of narrative nonfiction with his page-turning look at an unspeakable crime. On November 15, 1959, in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men brutally murder the Clutter family in their home for no apparent reason. Through extensive interviews from the first days on the scene and following the events all the way to the execution of the murderers, Capote suspensefully unfolds the whole story of exactly what happened and more intriguing of all, why it happened.
A. J. Baime
Born with mixed-race heritage to parents who were born as slaves, Walter F. White’s skin was light enough that he could easily “pass” as white. A leader of the Harlem Renaissance and an important member of the NAACP, White used his ability to lead a dual life, going undercover to investigate some of the worst racist murders in America. White’s leadership shaped public opinion, pushed forward the Civil Rights Movement, and altered the mission of the NAACP toward legal and political activism.
Raising questions about privacy, medical research, and ethics, Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching the history of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells. Just before her death from cervical cancer, Henrietta Lack’s cells were taken without her permission and scientists figured out how to keep them alive indefinitely. The created cell line was then used for countless medical research projects. Interspersing the history of Henrietta’s family with the medical use of her cells, Skloot has penned a memorable work.
Which Books About the 1950s Are You Most Interested in Reading?
What do you think? Do you enjoy reading books about the 1950s? What 1950s books would you recommend? As always, let me know in the comments!
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