Sacred Smokes

By Theodore C. Van Alst



Three To-Be-Read Piles =

A Decent Read Indeed


Reviewer: Red Velvette


Sacred Smokes by Theodore Van Alst, Jr., presents the story of an urban Native youth in a turbulent home situation who survives in spite of an alcoholic father and an absentee mother. It is also the story of Chicago—the side of Chicago tourists never see . . . rough and tumble, dirty, a side of the city far from State Street and Navy Pier and the Bean. Although this is a work of fiction, Van Alst writes with grit, and the reader sees that there is more truth in this work of fiction than in some biographies. Van Alst describes the Northside as only a long-time resident could. He lets the reader ride the L with his protagonist and feel the bitter cold of an Illinois winter. He lets the reader run the streets and explore adulthood and gang life and hiding beer by the tracks. Even when the protagonist visits other parts of the country, he carries with him certain attitudes of an urban Midwesterner. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny as the protagonist shares his view of his reality.

Van Alst writes in a unique style that is more like listening to a friend tell a rambling, disjointed story on a hot summer night over cigarettes than a formal piece of writing. With a train-of-thought style that uses character names like “Dave or Whatever,” the story is at times confusing as the narrator goes on side tangents. Published by the University of New Mexico Press, Sacred Smokes delves into the side of Native culture that many casual observers miss: the “urban Indian.” Many people were relocated from reservations to cities under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 in the hope that this relocation would lead to assimilation. Like many government policies, the theory behind this policy was "positive" (really??), but the reality was something else, and that reality is the meat of Van Alst’s novel. 

Given the tangential style of writing, I am only giving Sacred Smokes a light three to-be-read piles. It’s good, but for me, it just wasn’t quite great. It’s worth a read, though—just maybe not at the top of my list. I am interested to see what else Van Alst has written, and I might give some of his other works a look.   

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