25 Best Novels Set During the Great Depression

books set in the great depression novels

After reading Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds and Jojo Moyes’s The Giver of Stars, it got me thinking about other novels set during the Great Depression. Despite their often dire and difficult settings, these books are often portraits in survival or courage, though often tinged with man’s failings and disappointments as well.

General Adult Novels
Young Adult and Children’s Novels

Adult Novels

The Four Winds
Kristin Hannah

What It's About: An alternative cover edition for this ISBN can be found here.

From the number-one bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes a powerful American epic about love and heroism and hope, set during the Great Depression: a time when the country was in crisis, when millions were out of work and even the land seemed to have turned against them...

Publication Date: February 2, 2021
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Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

What It's About: When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie...

Publication Date: May 22, 2006
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The Giver of Stars
Jojo Moyes

What It's About: From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England...

Publication Date: October 3, 2019
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The Green Mile
Stephen King

What It's About: Set in the 1930s at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary's death-row facility, The Green Mile is the riveting and tragic story of John Coffey, a giant, preternaturally gentle inmate condemned to death for the rape and murder of twin nine-year-old girls. It is a story narrated years later by Paul Edgecomb, the ward superintendent compelled to help every prisoner spend his last days peacefully and every man walk the green mile to execution with his humanity intact...

Publication Date: May 8, 2010
stephen king horror fantasy

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Kim Michele Richardson

What It's About: An alternate cover edition can be found here.

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry.

The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky...

Publication Date: May 7, 2019
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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

What It's About: The Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression, a book that galvanized—and sometimes outraged—millions of readers.

First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California...

Publication Date: April 14, 1939
classics historical fiction classic

Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck

What It's About: “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why.”

They are an unlikely pair: George is "small and quick and dark of face"; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a "family," clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation...

Publication Date: February 25, 1937
classic school historical fiction

Cannery Row
John Steinbeck

What It's About: Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live "up the hill" in the more respectable area of town...

Publication Date: February 5, 2002
classic literature historical fiction

The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood

What It's About: The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel...

Publication Date: August 28, 2001
historical fiction books i own mystery

Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline

What It's About: The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask...

Publication Date: April 2, 2013
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The Legend of Bagger Vance
Steven Pressfield

What It's About:

Publication Date: August 27, 2009
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Tobacco Road
Erskine Caldwell

What It's About: The classic novel of a Georgia family undone by the Great Depression: “[A] story of force and beauty” (New York Post). Even before the Great Depression struck, Jeeter Lester and his family were desperately poor sharecroppers. But when hard times begin to affect the families that once helped support them, the Lesters slip completely into the abyss...

Publication Date: February 1, 1995
historical fiction southern classic

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

What It's About: To Kill A Mockingbird

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic...

Publication Date: July 11, 1960
classics historical fiction books i own

Rules of Civility
Amor Towles

What It's About: The New York Times bestselling novel that "enchants on first reading and only improves on the second" (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

This sophisticated and entertaining first novel presents the story of a young woman whose life is on the brink of transformation. On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table...

Publication Date: July 26, 2011
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The Truth According to Us
Annie Barrows

What It's About: In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom...

Publication Date: June 9, 2015
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The Day of the Locust
Nathanael West

What It's About: The Day of the Locust is a novel about Hollywood and its corrupting touch, about the American dream turned into a sun-drenched California nightmare. Nathanael West's Hollywood is not the glamorous "home of the stars" but a seedy world of little people, some hopeful, some despairing, all twisted by their by their own desires -- from the ironically romantic artist narrator, to a macho movie cowboy, a middle-aged innocent from America's heartland, and the hard-as-nails call girl would-be-star whom they all lust after...

Publication Date: September 6, 1983
classics literature novels

This Tender Land
William Kent Krueger

What It's About: In the summer of 1932, on the banks of Minnesota's Gilead River, the Lincoln Indian Training School is a pitiless place where Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to Odie O’Banion, a lively orphan boy whose exploits constantly earn him the superintendent’s wrath...

Publication Date: September 3, 2019
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Before We Were Yours
Lisa Wingate

What It's About: Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth...

Publication Date: June 6, 2017
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Young Adult and Children’s Novels

Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis

What It's About: It's 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud's got a few things going for him:

He has his own suitcase full of special things.

He's the author of Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself...

Publication Date: January 1, 1999
historical fiction young adult middle grade

The Mighty Miss Malone
Christopher Paul Curtis

What It's About: “We are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful” is the motto of Deza Malone’s family.

Deza is the smartest girl in her class in Gary, Indiana, singled out by teachers for a special path in life. But the Great Depression hit Gary hard, and there are no jobs for black men. When her beloved father leaves to find work, Deza, Mother, and her older brother Jimmie go in search of him, and end up in a Hooverville outside Flint, Michigan...

Publication Date: January 10, 2012
middle grade childrens historical

Esperanza Rising
Pam Muñoz Ryan

What It's About: Esperanza thought she'd always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico--she'd always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces...

Publication Date: October 1, 2000
historical fiction middle grade young adult

Out of the Dust
Karen Hesse

What It's About:

Publication Date: June 1, 2005
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Moon Over Manifest
Clare Vanderpool

What It's About: The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby. I closed my eyes to the dusty countryside and imagined the sign I’d seen only in Gideon’s stories: Manifest—A Town with a rich past and a bright future.

Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job...

Publication Date: October 12, 2010
newbery middle grade young adult

Echo Mountain
Lauren Wolk

What It's About: A young heroine in Depression-era Maine is navigating the rocky terrain of her new life on Echo Mountain.

After the financial crash, Ellie and her family have lost nearly everything--including their home in town. They have started over, carving out a new life in the unforgiving terrain of Echo Mountain...

Publication Date: April 21, 2020
historical fiction middle grade historical

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