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Father chronicles a family’s journey around the globe

  • From left, CJ, Katrina and Sophie Wheelan take a selfie at Machu Picchu in November 2016. Charles Wheelan has written "We Came We Saw We Left: A Family Gap Year" about their trip around the world. (Courtesy Charles Wheelan)

  • From left, Katrina, CJ, Sophie, Leah and Charlie Wheelan in Bhutan in March 2017. Charles Wheelan has written "We Came We Saw We Left: A Family Gap Year" about their trip around the world. (Courtesy Charles Wheelan)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2021 7:27:53 PM
Modified: 2/1/2021 7:27:50 PM

HANOVER — At first glance, Charles Wheelan’s new book, We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year might seem completely detached from our pandemic moment.

The book, which came out last week, is about a contemporary impossibility: traveling around the world.

But its relevance soon becomes clear. Wheelan, a lecturer in the government department at Dartmouth College, and his wife, Leah, now a public school administrator, and their three teenage children, set off in the fall of 2016 to travel the world for nine months. There’s something about traveling all in a group that isn’t unlike being stuck at home all in a group.

“I would say it’s first and foremost a book about family,” Wheelan said in an interview last week.

While the book is about the trip, why they took it, where they went and what happened along the way, Wheelan called it “a family memoir.”

At the time, the Wheelans’ eldest child, Katrina, had just graduated from Hanover High School and was taking a gap year before attending Williams College; their middle child, Sophie, was a junior at Hanover High; and their youngest, CJ, was an eighth-grader. Their personalities, as Wheelan describes them in the book, range from quiet and introspective (Katrina, and her father) to chatty and “exuberant” (CJ). Balancing all of those traits with the need for CJ and Sophie to keep up with their studies while they were crisscrossing the globe forms the heart of the story.

They were not uniformly excited about the trip, Wheelan writes. Sophie wasn’t eager to miss her junior year of high school, and wasn’t as keen on backpacking as the rest of the family.

“If she has to travel, she prefers the luxurious variety: grand hotels, fluffy bathrobes, mints on the pillows, that kind of thing,” Wheelan writes.

Wheelan works at the intersection of journalism (he was a correspondent for The Economist), public policy and academia, and his kids have been traveling with him for years.

The trip traced a route through South America, across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, Southeast Asia, India, East Africa and Dubai, before stops in Germany and the Republic of Georgia and flying home.

Charlie and Leah Wheelan had done something similar after they graduated from Dartmouth in 1988. They worked for the summer to sock away some money, then took off for a year. The itinerary was different, but the travel was formative. They saw a segment of the wider world before getting down to their careers, and Wheelan wrote dispatches from the trip for the Valley News, providing him with his first clips as a reporter. Katrina did much the same thing, writing columns for the Valley News about issues she encountered.

There’s something different about traveling as a family when you and your spouse have just turned 50, though. Their kids were changing before their eyes, even as they hopscotched from country to country. At one point, CJ becomes a character Wheelan calls “The Eco-Warrior,” who takes offense at every piece of litter or plastic fork.

Those changes have continued. Sophie, who struggled to get going on her online coursework during the trip, is now on track to graduate a week before her older sister, having buckled down and finished her studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in three years without taking the gap year Katrina had.

“For Sophie, it really had a profound effect on her,” Wheelan said.

It would be easy, in this socially conscious era, to look at Wheelan’s travelogue as a kind of diary of privilege. Who gets to do this kind of thing? Wheelan pointed out that there are many families who could undertake such travel, or at least could have before the pandemic, but don’t.

“There are a lot of privileged people who don’t do things like this,” he said. The main privileges his family possessed were good health and jobs they could return to when the trip was over, he said. “This was not about being rich.”

They rented their home, to family members who decided to live in Hanover for a year, and that money provided the budget for the trip. Leah has a gift for organizing things, so she held the purse-strings, so to speak, and Charlie has a flair for spontaneity. They also kept to a routine, with Charlie rising early each morning to write; he came home with a manuscript for a novel, The Rationing, which is set during a global pandemic and was published in 2019, and his journal, which was full of notes for the travel book.

They had a narrow opening into which they could fit this trip, and the pandemic’s limits on movement have made the experience that much more precious.

“I hope it doesn’t go away,” Wheelan said of global travel. “I think it would be just a tragic loss.”

Charles Wheelan will talk about his new book in a virtual event sponsored by the Norwich Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4. To join the event, email virtual33@norwichbookstore.com. Hanover’s Howe Library and Still North Books & Bar will host an online event at 7 p.m. on Feb. 10. Go to thehowe.org for more information.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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