When I was fifteen, I felt lost, and that was hardly unusual. Who knows who they are at fifteen, much less who they’re going to be? The popular crowd? I didn’t even know who they were. My nerd friends? Definitely not. Those smart kids in my AP gov. class who wouldn’t give me the time of day? Eh, unlikely.
Lani Garver didn’t know who he was either, or maybe he did. Either way, nobody else could tell. One of the main conceits in Carol Plum-Ucci’s YA novel, What Happened to Lani Garver, is Lani’s absolute refusal to let others define him. He won’t answer questions about his sexual orientation. He calls labels boxes and refuses to sit in one. One of those boxes is gender, which is how Lani introduced me to the idea that gender isn’t quite so black and white as I’d been taught. (I’d refer to Lani as they, but he never shares a preferred pronoun in the book, and I wouldn’t want to presume. That would just be ironic.)
No matter how much people press him, Lani will not cave in to his peer’s definition of normalcy. I’d call it his fatal flaw, but it’s not a flaw. It’s brave and it’s strong and it’s wonderful. It is also, unfortunately, fatal, which is hardly a spoiler. You find out in the first chapter that Lani dies during a hate crime, which is why I look back at this book and see it as a little problematic. Yes, Lani was a wonderful, wise, intelligent, genderless human being, but we never really do find out what happened to him. At its heart, this story is about its narrator, Claire, and the growth that Lani spurs in her. And while it’s great that Lani has such an impact on Claire, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit unfair that Claire never gets to leave her mark on Lani, or at least watch him develop in some way. Gender non-binary people deserve characters who grow, or better yet, who thrive. Tragedies are fine, but when that’s the only narrative surrounding a certain cast of people, well, we’ve got a problem.
Still, I can’t ignore the impact that this book had on my fifteen-year-old self. At fifteen, I wasn’t exactly sure what was normal, but I knew it when I saw it and I’d generally try to become what I saw. Needless to say, that wasn’t working. And then Lani came along, not even trying, or pretending, to be normal. This act was healing, both for him and for Claire, and when I tried it on, it became a healing act for me.
Lani dies, and I wish for all the world that he didn’t, or that we at least got to learn more about this angel before he leaves us. But before he dies, he does manage to teach young adult readers about compassion, self-expression, and the rewarding bravery inherent in being oneself. Plus, there’s a hopeful ambiguity to the book’s ending that I think readers will enjoy. Elaborating on that ending would border on spoiler territory, but I will say this: Lani Garver changed my life along with Claire’s, and I can’t believe that we’re the only people he ever has, or will, heal.