This quirky novel begins on a strange note: the whole of a Nebraska town is celebrating the execution of a man who murdered his two sons by lacing their Halloween candy apples with rat poison. All the children on the school bus are dressed up for the occasion, while the newly-divorced bus driver, Hud Smith, keeps a root beer bottle filled with vodka close at hand, only occasionally veering off the road.
Hud has family problems to occupy his time, particularly his separation from eight-year-old Nina and estrangement from his older son, Gatling, who has taken to the road as a musician with the popular gospel singing group, The Daughters of God. Hud also ruminates on religion, how it “got passed around town like something infectious.” Where most kids used to escape in music, drugs and sex, the teens in this Nebraska town cling to that old-time religion, quoting doomsday verses from the Bible and inking red dots on their palms to express solidarity with the Crucifixion.
When the Daughters of God singing group shows up at the Rivoli Sky-Vue drive-in theater, Hud expects a reunion with Gatling, but things never go as Hud expects and he is forced to make adjustments to his plans. Luckily, just about everything that happens to Hud is an inspiration for a new song, a talent that works well for his night job playing piano and singing at a local resort-hotel.
The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God is filled with small-town rituals, eccentric residents and a large dose of religious fanaticism - a symphony of images, parents caught up in broken dreams, their children clutching the Bible and murmuring damnation scripture.
These characters are uniquely eccentric: Hud, the alcoholic song-writer; his ex, Tuesday, who is drifting slowly back to her marriage; Ozzie Yates, the best friend whose wife died of breast cancer, leaving him to raise teen-aged Charlotte alone; the enigmatic Charlotte, once girlfriend to Hud’s son, traveling gospel musician Gatling; and Junior, Charlotte’s current boyfriend, preacher of biblical catastrophe.
These hapless characters are all the more sympathetic for their faults, their personalities unpretentious and accessible. This novel is a charming story of regular people gone off track, weighed down by problems they avoid dealing with directly, the promise of youth abandoned for a more practical approach to the daily trials that accompany marriage and raising children.
A microcosm for Anywhere, USA, this small Nebraska town is home to generations challenged by a rapidly evolving society, their children exposed to more temptation than their parents, all of them stumbling under the pressures of daily life. There are plenty of problems to go around, but what makes this novel so delightful is Hud’s hopeful attitude as he works to regain his fragmented family, both children benefiting from their parents’ sometimes misguided love. Every heartache is tempered with tenderness, every mistake with forgiveness.