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Book Nook: For Want of a Nail

Review by Ryan Fleming.

There's no doubt. The title tells you what the book's about.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Amongst the many misunderstood concepts in modern criticism and discussion of pop culture is that of the ‘importance’ of a work. Those who choose to understand culture as a zero-sum game are prone to tout ‘importance’, sometimes expressed as ‘essential’ or ‘necessary’, from some need to have an objective justification for (or in place of) subjective enjoyment. That’s not to say that works cannot be important, essential, or necessary – indeed, many are – but rather seeking out works based purely on these notions is a fool’s errand.


Witness one of the ‘important’ novels of alternate history: Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga. A rarity in published alternate history novels, both in its time and arguably to this day, in taking the form of a nonfiction presented history of an alternate timeline. However, upon reading, its importance becomes apparent in its influence on the style of much online published alternate history fiction using the same format for their prose.


Is For Want of a Nail just an ‘important’ piece of alternate history fiction? Or is there more to recommend it beyond that nebulous concept? The format of the work presents some challenges in deciding that. It cannot be judged as a fiction alone because of its format, nor can it be judged on its format because it is fiction. Both aspects need to be considered, but so too does its status not as fictional history or historical fiction, but as a work of alternate history in itself.


A frequent debate amongst fans of alternate history is whether it is a genre itself or merely a setting for other genres. Fatherland by Robert Harris is without question set in an alternate history, but aside from that takes many conventions of detective fiction. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick, in comparison, plays out by showing us the day-to-day lives of its characters in an alternate history. Depending on the work, alternate history can be either genre or setting. In the case of For Want of a Nail, it is both.


The divergence from our own history, as suggested by the novel’s subtitle, is the victory of the British forces under John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga during the American War of Independence.

In OTL, Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The novel does not begin there, however, instead looking at events from the end of the Seven Years’ War to the outbreak of rebellion in North America in 1775. These tell history as we know it happened, but in a different context to how it is normally portrayed. Those most agitating for rebellion like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry are portrayed as extremists. Incidents such as the Boston Massacre are portrayed as a regrettable response to provocation. There is more emphasis on the efforts of loyalists like Joseph Galloway to avoid violence. Even the position of Lord North towards the colonies is said to be “logical and reasonable”. This recontextualising of historical events and personalities goes some way to foreshadowing the alternate pathway taken by history in the novel. The narrative does not diverge from our own history until the third chapter with the North American Rebellion, as it is called in this timeline, ending in a victory for the United Kingdom. Even stripped of explanation, this massive divergence from our own history is one that is easily understood with a passing familiarity with world events of the past two-and-a-half centuries. Yet somehow, as far as alternate history goes, this divergence which can be easily explained in a single sentence is strangely underdone.


Sobel’s alternate history starts in the 1770s and ends in the 1970s. The intervening two hundred years are radically different with the absence of the United States, especially as we draw nearer to the end. There are multiple entities which would seem to fill some niche left by the absence of that country from history.


Two of them would be known to anyone with a passing familiarity with the content of the book. The first is the Confederation of North America, a self-governing amalgamation of British North American territories that, as time goes on, increasingly pursues its own policies independent of the metropole. The CNA occupies most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. To its west lies another claimant to the gap left by the USA in the alternate timeline, the United States of Mexico. The USM was formed from a union of Mexico with Jefferson, a state carved into the area we know as Texas by exiled North American rebels unwilling to live under British rule, even following self-government.


The two countries embody different aspects of the United States: the CNA has the industrial might yet is isolationist; whilst the USM reaps the benefit of its natural resources but becomes increasingly expansionist against its neighbours. The third claimant to the position filled by the US in our timeline is not even a country: Kramer Associates. Founded in San Francisco (part of the USM) and increasing its power to monopolistic levels in that country before embarking on a globalisation spree and controlling the economies of countries like the Philippines amd Taiwan after flitting from the USM. It is Kramer Associates that becomes the first world power to detonate at atomic bomb in the novel’s closing chapters.


The notion of three competing powers whose existence comes from the failure of North American rebels is itself an innovative one for this alternate history. Usually, British North America would expand to cover all of historic USA and Canada, and by the modern day North American families gather at teatime under portraits of Emperor George XII to watch airship coverage of riots between Manhattan United hooligans and the New York Constabulary, with multiple characters for some reason commenting that shooting the hooligans isn’t an option because, as you know Bob, our police are unarmed.


Avoiding many of the cultural stereotypes, both American and British, that usually come with alternate histories of this type may have been entirely accidental. Sobel’s principal occupation was a business historian, and that shows in his writing of alternate history. From the outset, the book describes itself as a political and economic history of the CNA and USM, which means that these aspects are really fleshed out to the extent of hundreds of footnotes citing fictional works and many figures of population and economic statistics.


The end result is perhaps one of the most complete pictures of an alternate history in any published novel. Events such as the Rocky Mountain War (1845-52) between the CNA and USM, the “El Jefe” dictatorship in the USM (1881-1901), or the mass panic and unrest of the CNA’s Starkist terror (1899-1901) aren’t just worldbuilding nuggets but play out before the reader’s eyes.


However, this strength, perhaps the novels greatest strength, in providing a full narrative history of the politics and economics of the CNA and USM may also be its greatest weakness. Cultural and technological events don’t just take a backseat to politics and economics, they’re not even in the same car. That speaks to one of the other ways that For Want of a Nail should be viewed, not just as alternate history, but as a piece of fiction on those merits.


Alternate history is alone amongst genres in that a work can be published taking the form of a single source of nonfiction within an imagined world. Published, mind you, because one could easily begin to write an epic fantasy tale told within the context of a history text published centuries afterwards by an historian. It’s the sort of method that might appeal to those who believe the best parts of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are the appendices after the main narrative, but most prefer the narrative itself as reading material.


It can be done outside alternate history, such as Max Brooks’ World War Z which does use a similar conceit as For Want of a Nail but is presented as an oral history of the titular conflict, so that each individual account instead functions almost as a contained first-person narrated short story. That book took its inspiration from Studs Turkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. In fairness to Sobel, Turkel’s work was published a decade after For Want of a Nail, but it highlights one problem of Sobel’s work as fiction: it is not a people’s history. There are many enticing events mentioned throughout the novel that warrant perhaps one or two paragraphs as they would in an actual history textbook of this style, but serve only as distractions in an alternate history one. Take, for example, the Rocky Mountain Campaign of 1851, where 140,000 CNA and 97,000 USM soldiers ventured into the mountains in mid-November and fought throughout the winter until the spring thaw when only 1 in 4 of them emerged alive. The four generals leading the campaign are mentioned as having either frozen to death or taken their own lives, and even as recent as 1971, military hardware is still found in the snow, alongside remarkably well-preserved bodies. That was one of the most vivid incidents in the text to this reader, and it plays out over a grand total of three paragraphs.

Fighting a war here in the Rocky Mountains. In winter. I'm surprised as many as 25% came out alive.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The lack of human perspective is perhaps why this format has been rarely used in published alternate history since 1973. Traditional narrative stories lend themselves to human perspectives and emotional resonance with greater ease. However, an evolution to Sobel’s format has been seen in alternate history circles, just not in published works. As the influence of For Want of a Nail in online alternate history writing, taking the form of metafictional nonfiction works, eventually there started to appear more first-person narratives in those histories, which also gave way to vignettes told in a traditional fiction narrative. This way allowed for both the full historical narrative of Sobel’s work whilst also giving a human perspective achievable with a traditional fiction format.


That emotional element was needed in Sobel’s work, where some events play out in an all-too rational, even sterile, manner. For example, three parts of the CNA develop their own unique cultures compared with the others. There is Quebec, as in our own history as part of Canada the only Francophone majority culture in its country. Manitoba, here consisting of northern Ontario and Rupert’s Land, becoming a “dull paradise” by 1850 and populated by agrarians, poets, and utopians. And Southern Vandalia, the lower part of the historical Louisiana Purchase north of the Arkansas river, which by the 1880s had become majority Black. The how, whom, and implications within each of these is vague, and even Quebec, where we have our own history from which we can contextualise, misses out a lot of the why for a smooth plebiscite leading to a form of home rule in 1889. Nova Scotia gains a similar arrangement to Quebec thereafter, with little explanation.


Where Sobel fails to give a proper human perspective and context to diverse cultures that he himself has speculated; instead there is a far greater emphasis on the growth and principles of various megacorporations that emerge from the CNA and USM over the two hundred years portrayed in the novel. Without any further context, the existence and reach of such an organisation like Kramer Associates sounds more like something from cyberpunk than alternate history. Within the context of For Want of a Nail, instead Kramer Associates is not a unique case, merely the most prominent.


Much of their early dominance is in partnership with Petroleum of Mexico, before merging with that organisation in 1892. These organisations are not limited to the USM, with the Galloway family’s North American Motors being wealthy enough and powerful enough to launch their own sponsored migration scheme in the CNA and beyond from 1922. Nor are they limited to private enterprise, with the CNA’s National Financial Administration existing as an arm of the government to provide financing throughout the Confederation. These organisations are not without historic precedent, and Sobel’s profession as a business historian many have been the reason an alternate path whereby these corporations grow evermore powerful rather than being curtailed by governments is so emphasised within For Want of a Nail.


Within the novel, Kramer Associates does not appear randomly near the end in control of Taiwan and detonating an atomic bomb. The rise of the organisation and the power it wields having been woven into the narrative since its first founding out of the boom of the California gold rush.


As a work of fiction, what For Want of a Nail lacks in human perspective, it makes up for in innovative ideas. However, some of those ideas are given more prominence than others of possibly equal or greater interest to the reader. This is the difference between general and specific histories. It is likely that within this timeline there are plenty of works focused on those events which only warrant a mention in Sobel’s broad political and economic tome. As a history within its own fictional context is another context from which For Want of a Nail should be viewed.


All works, whether fiction or non-fiction, are products of their time. For Want of a Nail is no exception. Its writing during the Cold War is reflected in the recurring motif of two scorpions in a bottle circling each other that is first mentioned in the context of the CNA and USM eyeing each other warily over the Rocky Mountains, and reappears in the context of what we know as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. There also exist several gaps in the history presented that might be down to when it was written in our own history.


One such gap is a history of the indigenous population of the CNA. After a conflict in the historic Old Northwest in the 1830s, this group warrants little mention. In contrast, the Indians of the USM, forming the majority of the population in two Mexican states, are examined numerous times. There is no indication, for instance, whether the major tribes of the Southern Confederation retain their lands and avoid an equivalent to the Trail of Tears.


Other groups that garner little mention are various immigrant groups to either the USM or CNA. In the CNA it is mentioned that Governor General Ezra Gallivan is the son of an Irish immigrant who arrived in the country after the Rocky Mountain War. In the USM, there emerges a Franco-Mexican community in Tampico, which began from French business playing a role in developing the port, and later becomes the site of several flashpoints as relations between Mexico and France deteriorate.


Other aspects of history are notable by their complete absence. Only five women are mentioned in the 14-page index at the end of the book, and the only one referenced on more than one page is Queen Victoria. Even the woman whose actions are most significant within the narrative, Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who as regent to her son Louis XVII triggers the Trans-Oceanic War, is not listed in the index. Perhaps more surprisingly for Sobel, a business historian, and considering the prominence the likes of Kramer Associates are given within the alternate history, the Hudson’s Bay Company, already in control of almost 1.5 million square miles of what will become the CNA at the onset of the narrative, is never mentioned once even in passing.


Some of these gaps might be down to the bias of the actual author of the alternate history, some of them might be intentionally done within the text to create something of an unreliable narrator. There is actually a way that could have been made clear, since after the main narrative and before the bibliography, appendices, and index there exists an in-universe critique of Sobel (his alternate timeline brother of the CNA is ostensibly the writer of the book in its own history) by a Mexican academic. An editor’s note explains that this is common practice where academics of one nation write a history of another.


The fictitious Professor Frank Dana does not point to any aspect previously identified as a gap, indicating that these were likely oversights of Sobel of our own timeline. However, the critique does still give us insight into the biases of the Sobel from CNA, pointing out that what is presented as a dual history of the CNA and USM is in fact a triple history of those two nations and Kramer Associates. The fictitious version of Sobel is already accused of having a bias towards the CNA, Dana citing prior statements where Sobel claims the CNA is not only the culmination of the dreams of the Loyalists, but also the North American Rebels.


That bias is seemingly being extended towards Kramer Associates too, as Dana points out their complicity in the El Jefe dictatorship and that wherever that regime accomplishes anything within Sobel’s narrative, it is thanks to Kramer, whereas all the tyranny and failures are down to the Mexican government. As a reader, we are left wondering how much of what we have read is through the lens of a pro-CNA/Kramer alliance author. Questioning the biases of an alternate history we have read in the same way we should question an actual history.


Both Sobels have approached this history using the Great Man theory. The North American Rebellion happens because of the agitations of men like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry; it is the efforts of men like John Burgoyne and Joseph Galloway that end it in favour of the United Kingdom. Defeated rebels go into exile and under the leadership of Nathaniel Greene, Benedict Arnold, and Alexander Hamilton, they found the state of Jefferson. Andrew Jackson, the dominant figure in Jefferson, succeeding Hamilton, unifies that nation with Mexico after capturing Mexico City.

Lord North, one of the Great Men of the tale.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Even social movements, good or ill, happen usually thanks to a single prominent figure. A wave of political upheaval and violence in the CNA takes the name ‘Starkist Terror’ after Fritz Stark, a Liberal politician who accusations that the Governor-General is in the pay of Kramer Associates is the casus belli. The wave of emigration, both internal and external, that happens in the CNA two decades later is at the behest of business magnate Owen Galloway. Even Kramer Associates retains the name of its first President a century after he held the position and is never succeeded by a descendant or other family member. This adherence to the Great Man theory may explain some of the gaps mentioned in the history, and ties into the in-universe critique of Sobel by Dana.


It is sometimes said that a mark of a good tale is one that leaves you wanting to know more. In the sense that this reader wants to know more about the alternate history portrayed within For Want of a Nail, but told from below, Sobel can be said to have succeeded.


Despite its shortcomings as a complete history, For Want of a Nail still has plenty to recommend it as a work of fiction, albeit within the confines of its history text format. Its trie appeal, though, is as an alternate history. It paints a picture of a world very different to our own, springing forth from a recognisable departure point. If one can find entertainment in reading of our own history, then one can easily find entertainment in reading Sobel’s account of one alternate to that.


The alternate history painted in For Want of a Nail is an interesting one by not hewing to a philosophy of being completely better or totally worse than our own history. It’s just different, neither a complete utopia nor a total dystopia. As an example, social services progress in both the CNA and USM to where both have universal healthcare by the 1920s, the same decade the latter finally abandons chattel slavery.


That social services can be decades ahead of our own history whilst simultaneously human rights are decades behind recurs throughout. Sometimes technology too is in advance of our own, with the 1920s also seeing widespread adoption of television. It is this picture of a different world, which is in various respects both better and worse than our own, that keeps For Want of a Nail a recommended piece of alternate history fiction decades after its initial release.


Despite its prominence within alternate history and overall quality, For Want of a Nail has only ever been published three times in 50 years. Its initial release in 1973, and then by Greenhill, a British company specialising in military histories, as a hardback in 1997 and a paperback in 2002. At a time when quality online alternate history fiction can be lost under a deluge of far-right wish fulfilment tracts, so few people having access to Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga is a tragedy.


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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.




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