The novel is about a very small and poor school, set up nearly a century ago by Muhammadiyah people for the poor Malay in Belitung, the island already known at that time for its government tin mining as it was until recently. Bangka is the island for private enterprise in the field.
The tin mining authority has a prestigious school, there is also a good private Chinese school, but the children of poor people, mostly Malay, some Chinese, are the pupils of the Muhammadiyah school. The school is run by a very young girl/teacher, only 15 years old at the beginning of the six years of the book, together with an older man who become sick and dies in the course of the book.
Although it is about a Muhammadiyah school, there is not much official Islam in the book. The brightest boy is fond of magic, all kind of foretelling and magical power. Nothing exceptional about a love affair between a Malay and a Chinese. Lovely book.