Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Fine Arts (MFA)



First Committee Member

Richard Wiley

Second Committee Member

Douglas Unger

Third Committee Member

Maile Chapman

Fourth Committee Member

Sean Clark

Number of Pages



Mer begins with a prologue in which the ten-year-old title character and her parents, who have renamed themselves River and Willow, are in Arctic Alaska. There they have an experience that impacts Mer so much she ends up walking away from them and into the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in Alaska, alone.

After that, the novel functions as three novellas told from three different first person perspectives -- that of Ada, Mer's grandmother, that of Willow, her mother, and Mer herself. Each is set in a different time and place.

Ada, the grandmother and the subject of the first novella, is an orphan in 1929 New York. She rides the orphan train, a progenitor of the foster care movement, in search of Christian foster parents and is taken in by a couple in rural Louisiana. This couple lives deep in one of the swamps connecting to the bayous near the girls' school and convent in New Iberia. She, too, ends up running away. Her story covers 1929 to 1942 and the beginning of World War II, as well as her eventual marriage, her relationship with her foster parents, and her relationship with her foster mother's mother.

The third perspective and second novella is Willow's, around 1990. She is an unconventional artist both reveling in and decrying others' reactions to her work -- when her section begins, she is using bones she's gathered from the nearby cemetery as material for a sculpture. When she is sentenced to community service, she meets River and the group of not-quite hippies with him. She runs away with them to New Orleans, where she uses a lot of drugs, paints, alienates others, gets pregnant, wonders if she's falling apart, and begins to question her art and thus her definition of herself.

The book then returns to Mer a little earlier than we last left her. She and her parents have been on a pan-American road trip since before she was born. In Las Vegas she makes friends with Carl, a homeless Alaskan piano player, and Damon, the son of a Cirque du Soleil performer. Willow leaves River for a Strip-based poker player named Fish. Throughout this section, Mer gets a better sense of her parents and who they are. She's an imaginative girl, and the story is told partially through the stories she absorbs. After she and her parents flee Las Vegas, the book returns to its initial storyline -- the family's time in the Arctic -- and picks up where the prologue left off.


Artists; Families; Fiction; Runaways (Fictitious characters)



File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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