Homer's Travels: Book: Robert Sobel's "For Want of a Nail"

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book: Robert Sobel's "For Want of a Nail"

Every now and then I like to change it up a little bit, get away from the space based science fiction that I usually read, and delve into alternative history/counterfactual/speculative fiction. I have noticed two distinctive types of alternative fiction. The first is written in a more scholarly fashion, as if a person is speculating what would happen if some detail of history had been different. An example would be "What If?", an anthology edited by Robert Cowley. The other type uses the alternate history as a backdrop for a story and feels more like a piece of fiction than an historical study. Examples of this type would be Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" or Robert Harris' "Fatherland". My latest read, Robert Sobel's "For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne had won at Saratoga" is a combination of the two types.

"For Want of a Nail" is written like it was a history book. It is not just any history book but an actual history book from this alternate history down to the fictitious footnotes on nearly every page, to the fictitious Selected Bibliography, to the fictitious critique of the book at it's end. For a while this format was a little distracting. It reminded me of some of the Star Trek Technical Manuals and Star Fleet Blue Prints I have stuffed away somewhere in the basement where everything is from the 23rd century. After awhile the distraction faided and I really got into the book.

The book starts with British General Burgoyne winning the battle of Saratoga. This leads to the defeat of the American Rebels who, unwilling to live under the rule of the King, eventually migrate to our Texas (called Jefferson in the book). Eventually Jefferson, led by president Andrew Jackson, invades and merges with Mexico, which includes California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and becomes the United States of Mexico. The original 13 colonies, along with part of modern day Canada, and most of the continent east of the Mississippi, become the Confederation of North America. The book then alternates between the two nations speculating how they would evolve politically, socially, and economically.

Sobel goes beyond the usual scholarly speculation. He follows the history of these two nations until 1971 - nearly 200 years. He includes tables showing election results, imports and exports, and other data you might find in a history book. (The one piece of data he did not include, and would have been very helpful, would have been a map.) A decade or two after the changed event, any speculation, especially the numerical data, becomes purely fiction - the book shifts from type one to type two (scholarly to fictional backdrop). This is fine because the story Sobel weaves grabbed me and held my interest.

As I read it I was surprised to find that I liked it. It was a history book. No real history book from my school days ever held my interest like this. It was a pleasant surprise. I wanted to read more but, since the book was published in 1972, there was no more.

Recommended to the historically minded.


  1. I'm not usually into speculative/alternative histories, but I have to say you've intrigued me...

  2. GH: You might like this one. Kind of different.

  3. I just finished the book. It was amazing. I read military histories and had never read an alternative history. This was a very special work.

  4. Anonymous: Thanks for visiting Homer's Travels. I'm glad you liked it. It was a very interesting read.

  5. Thanks- this was a wonderful book.