Nearly a decade after the housing market crashed and the Great Recession hit, novels set during the Great Depression remain chillingly relatable. With global economies still in recovery, readers — particularly those from the working- and former-middle classes — identify strongly with Depression Era narratives' nebulous villains and unbeatable circumstances.
That doesn't mean novels set during the Great Depression are, well, depressing. The backdrop of widespread poverty, unemployment, and desperation provides an excellent foil to the tenacity of the human spirit.
On the other hand, some stories set in the 1930s show us how a bad situation can affect an individual's personality and well-being, and how compounding circumstances can create an inescapable downward spiral toward doom. Because reading fiction increases a person's capacity for empathy, taking the time to consume so-called "depressing" books can help you to become a better citizen and ally.
The nine books on this list probably aren't the first to leap to mind when you think of novels set during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath is not here. Neither are Tobacco Road or Out of the Dust. Those are wonderful novels, but you and I and all the other book nerds know their stories. I want to showcase a few you might not have read.
Check out my suggestions below, and share your favorite novels set during the Great Depression with me on Twitter.
1. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
When tragedy strikes, a formerly wealthy mother and daughter must flee Mexico for a California workers camp in this middle grades novel from Echo author Pam Muñoz Ryan.
2. Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown
Dottie Krasinsky holds down a bookkeeping job in Midtown Manhattan while living with her immigrant parents in an apartment on the Lower East Side. With war brewing in Europe, Dottie's mother, Rose, longs to return to her former life of activism. When both women face unexpected pregnancies, however, they must make difficult choices about their futures in New York City.
3. The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
When her father leaves town to find work, clever Deza journeys to find him with her mother and brother. Their travels take them to a small town outside Flint, Michigan, where Deza's brother discovers a talent that may prove lucrative. Meanwhile, mother and daughter hold out hope that they'll be reunited with their husband and father.
4. Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
Paule Marshall's 1959 novel centers on the Boyces: a Bajan family of four who one day aspire to own their own home in the U.S. Tensions rise when the family's patriarch, Deighton, learns of an inheritance back in Barbados, but disagrees with Silla, his wife, on how to put it to use.
5. Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
A logger-turned-independent preacher, Brodis Lambey keeps a tight rein on his household. After disagreements over where their son should attend school threaten the peace of the Lambey homestead, Brodis discovers that his wife may be hiding a dark secret: witchcraft.
6. Good Hope Road by Sarita Mandanna
Years after they returned home from their time with the French Foreign Legion, two men find themselves reunited on one's New Hampshire farm. But another war is brewing in Europe, and the former comrades haven't recovered yet from the first.
7. A Tale of Two Citizens by Elyce Wakerman
Yankel "Harry" Himelbaum plans to create a new life for himself in the U.S. before sending for his wife and child, whom he left behind in Poland. To gain entry into the country, however, he must lie about his marital status. That lie pitches him into a decade-long battle with immigration official Will Brown: a letter-of-the-law man who wants to keep foreign influence out of the U.S.
8. Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
When 12-year-old William Eng goes to see a movie with the rest of the children who live in the orphanage with him, he becomes convinced of two things: 1) his mother is still alive, and 2) she's a movie star named Willow Frost. Joined by a friend, William breaks out of the orphanage and makes his way across Seattle, in search of the mother he lost five years earlier.
9. The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows
After Layla Beck refuses to marry the man of her father's choice, she's cut off from his financial support, and signs up with the Federal Writers Project. Sent to document the history of a mill town, Layla finds herself caught in the middle of two compelling narratives: of Macedonia, West Virginia and the eccentric Romeyn family.
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