Top 5 Books That Capture American Eras

Books are a powerful tool that teachers can use to enhance their students’ understanding of the world and the human experience. Through literature, students can explore different time periods, cultures, and perspectives, which can help them develop empathy, critical thinking skills, and a love of learning.

ThinkFives and ESGI poll thousands of teachers each year.  For this post, we asked what books best capture a historical era. From the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, these books cover important historical periods and offer valuable insights into the lives of characters and their experiences. Here are the Top 5!

“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan (1989)

Set in the 1940s and 1950s,  β€œThe Joy Luck Club” explores the experiences of Chinese American women and their relationships with their mothers and with each other. The novel delves into themes of identity, cultural heritage, and the intergenerational struggles faced by immigrant families.

Through the experiences of the characters, Tan also explores the history of Chinese immigration to the United States and the challenges faced by immigrant families. The novel sheds light on the struggles of immigrants to adapt to a new culture while trying to hold onto their cultural heritage. Overall, “The Joy Luck Club” is a poignant exploration of family, identity, and cultural heritage that resonates with readers of all backgrounds.

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)

Set during World War II, Catch-22 satirizes the absurdity of war and bureaucracy through the experiences of a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier stationed in Italy. The novel explores the themes of insanity and the struggle for survival in a world gone mad and popularized the term “Catch-22” to describe a situation in which one is trapped by contradictory rules or conditions.

While set in World War II, the dark humor of Catch-22 can be related to any war – or school district.  Teach more. Teach better. Work more. Cut resources. 

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker (1982)

Set in the 1930s South, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women as they navigate racism, sexism, and poverty in a society that devalues them. The novel explores themes of sisterhood, resilience, and the power of love and forgiveness to heal even the deepest wounds.

Among the themes of The Color Purple are love, abuse, power, racism, and sexism. The novel also explores the role of spirituality in the lives of the characters. The novel portrays the importance of faith and the search for meaning and purpose in life, particularly for those who have faced significant hardships.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Set during the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby explores the excesses and disillusionment of the Jazz Age, a time of economic boom and cultural change in America. The novel follows the story of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who throws lavish parties in hopes of winning back his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. Through Gatsby’s pursuit of the American Dream, the novel reveals the darker side of wealth and ambition in the 1920s – an era that still sparks a feeling of grandeur.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939)

Set during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath follows a family of migrant workers as they journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a better life. The novel exposes the harsh realities of poverty and exploitation faced by many during this time and highlights the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The Great Depression still conjures feelings of hopelessness and Tribulation. The Grapes of Wrath captures this era arguably better than any work in American literature.

Honorable Mentions

  • “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead (2016) – set in the 1800s, follows a slave named Cora as she escapes from a Georgia plantation and travels on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to freedom.
  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987) – set in the aftermath of the Civil War,  tells the story of a former slave named Sethe and her daughter Denver, who is haunted by the memory of Sethe’s infant daughter, whom she killed to prevent her from being returned to slavery.
  • “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (1990) – set during the Vietnam War, is a collection of interconnected short stories that explore the experiences of soldiers and the psychological toll of war.
  • “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison (1952) – set during the Civil Rights era, explores the experiences of an unnamed black man in the United States as he confronts racism and white supremacy.

Do you have any recommendations for novels that capture great eras in American History?


  1. These are all amazing books. The Joy Luck Club is probably my favorite of the ones listed. So moving!

What do you THINK?

%d bloggers like this: