The characters populating Timothy Schaffert's The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God may not be particularly likeable, yet somehow they're impossible not to love. Their flaws only add dimension as they cope with tribulations that could have been pulled from the lyrics of a country song.

The story of a mixed-up family in small-town Nebraska, Schaffert's second novel (following The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters) has Hud Smith, a semi-alcoholic elementary school bus driver and part-time musician, at its center. Tuesday is his confused ex-wife who, despite divorce papers, can't seem to sever her bond with her former husband. Together, they struggle to raise their eerily precocious eight-year-old daughter Nina and to find their teenage son Gatling, who (last they heard) has run off and joined a religious rock group called The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God. The neighbors most notably Ozzie, a widower drowning in grief after his wife's death, and Charlotte, the daughter left afloat by her emotionally-absent dad are colorful characters who enrich the story, but Schaffert's narrative sleight-of-hand is a subplot involving a family virtually unknown to the Smiths. Robbie Schrock murdered his two young sons after a bitter divorce and, as the novel opens, the town is celebrating his execution with Halloween-like festivities. That secondary story arc lurks in the background until Hud comes face-to-face with the anguished mother and grapples with just what to say. A child who loses a parent is called an orphan . . . . A wife who loses a husband is a widow, Hud thinks to himself. But, Where's our word, Mrs. Schrock? Hud wrestles with this question even outside the search for his own son: who are we when there are no words to define us? Is Hud a selfish alcoholic or a devoted father with the tendency to be impulsive? Is he a failure or a man with the soul of a musician who never got his big break? The frankness with which Schaffert tackles these questions is heart-rending, resulting in an honest story with just a touch of honky-tonk. Iris Blasi is a writer in New York City.

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