W. W. Norton & Company
In 2015, my wife and I renovated a ramshackle travel trailer and toured the Lower 48 states — one week, one campground at a time.
It was the most rewarding year of our lives, and yet our adventure seemed to polarize everyone who knew about it — especially the baby boomers. They either encouraged the idea, wishing they had done something similar before their health had failed or their life had grown too complicated, or they wrote us off with patronizing jokes about freelancers and millennials, wishing they had done something similar before their health had failed or their life had grown too complicated.
“A big reason many people don’t do it,” concludes author Charles Wheelan in his latest book, We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year, “is because many people don’t do it.”
He isn’t just talking the talk. A public policy and economics professor at Dartmouth College, Wheelan is known primarily for his best-selling book Naked Economics and his two follow-ups, Naked Statistics and Naked Money. But in May 2019 he published The Rationing, his first political thriller, and now comes We Came, We Saw, We Left, a travel memoir based on his family’s world tour.
In 2016, Wheelan and his wife, Leah, inspired by their own youthful travels, embarked on a nine-month globetrot with their son, CJ, and two daughters, Sophie and Katrina, all of them starkly different and sensationally teenage. They called it a “family gap year.” They rode horseback through an organic coffee farm in Columbia, swam a subterranean river in the Amazon, safaried in the Serengeti. Sophie vomited from the top bunk of an Indian train, Katrina contracted a parasitic disease, and CJ mentally imploded at a modern art museum in Tasmania.
The book is a swift and refreshing escape during these isolated, isolating times. It is also a disarming repudiation of those patronizing and “powerful social forces” that prevent too many families from similar adventures, and a waggish examination of nuclear (pun intended) family dynamics.
“Having them [the kids] in a confined space after traveling for thirty-six hours,” Wheelan writes in the prelude to one of several family meltdowns abroad, “was like chain-smoking in a fireworks factory.”
If this sounds like an utterly conventional book to hit the shelves in 2021 — an upper-middle class white family traveling the world together — you’d be right. Sort of. There’s nothing especially novel in the premise alone, despite the obvious hazards involved in such a bold endeavor. And as the American publishing industry rightfully continues to grapple with a conspicuous lack of diversity, one might be tempted to question how or why such a book ultimately landed on the shelves.
Only by chance did I snag an early copy myself, but Wheelan quickly proves an astute chronicler of both family life and foreign cultures. And ironically, it’s often the utter normalcy of the Wheelan family that makes this travelogue so endearing. Certainly not every family can afford a gap year — though he makes a convincing case for the affordability of travel — but many can relate to the meltdowns, the blame games, the hyper-sensitive “family mood gauge,” or the sudden hysterics of a hungry 13-year-old boy.
“At one point Leah gave CJ a tough geometry problem in our Berlin hotel room,” Wheelan writes. “He collapsed to the floor, where he began crying and saying repeatedly that he wanted to be a taco.”
Much to his readers’ benefit, Wheelan doesn’t shy away from illustrating his family’s quirks and foibles, despite his obvious love for them. At 18, Katrina is portrayed as the quiet intellectual. Sophie, at 16, is perpetually battling her parents, slamming doors and straining valiantly for her freedom. And 13-year-old CJ — whose antics truly shine under Wheelan’s careful gaze — is garrulous, inquisitive and frequently out of his depth. In one particularly memorable example, CJ finds himself dumbstruck at Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA):
“It was the Great Wall of Vagina that rendered CJ speechless. As the name might suggest, the exhibit was a wall of four hundred vaginas: plaster molds of vaginas made from volunteers, young and old. All were displayed along the wall of a corridor, vagina after vagina. CJ wanted to talk about this, but he could not formulate a specific question. ‘That thing with the vaginas…’ he began. ‘Like, who…’ Still, no complete thought. He stared in silence for a while and then went back to the flabby Ferrari.”
Though Wheelan sometimes humors his inner public policy wonk — in Bhutan, he deconstructs the king’s emphasis on gross national happiness; in Argentina, the paradox of a “robust food food culture” and a seemingly low obesity rate — he’s careful not to let it derail the narrative. More often, he filters the world through the lens of his family. How did the Wheelans escape a small Peruvian town on strike? How did the Wheelans navigate the byzantine Indian government to secure a multi-entry visa? How did the Wheelans handle homeschooling and online learning abroad? I often felt as though my own father were narrating the trip: earnestly studying the local culture one minute and laughing at his own bad dad jokes the next. I suspect others will, too.
But nobody likes the jester who won’t shut off. It’s the sparing moments of sincerity that truly ground the memoir, reminding readers that travel, in the oft-quoted words of Mark Twain, is “fatal to prejudice.” In South Africa, Wheelan and his wife took a day off, touring wine country away from the kids. They shared a van with a white couple from Brazil, and five black nurses from Johannesburg. At the end of the tour, one of the nurses suggested they take a group photo. They all gathered together, inadvertently divided by color. Wheelan lets the moment speak for itself.
“No, no, no,” the nurse who had requested the photo said. “We have to be mixed.” And then, after we moved around to create a photo more consistent with South Africa’s aspirations, she added, “We have come too far for that.”
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer and author of Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream.