A young village girl in Thailand is introduced to early sorrows when her father is branded a thief and shot by police. In shame, her mother flees to America, leaving the unknowing Malila in the care of her wise grandmother. Malila joins her grandmother in threading a garland of orchids and jasmine for the san phra phum, the spirit house. This marks the beginning of Grandmother's reverential guidance in the many traditions of their country. When her father is pronounced suay, or unlucky, Malila is an outcast, and finds her own way through her love of drawing and her grandmother's life lessons, from listening to the voice of the river to attending a kite contest. When her grandmother dies and Malila has to leave for America, she carries with her the inner strength to gain sanouk, the joy of living. Strong, sympathetic characters and the evocative Thai setting are an integral part of this well-told story with the universal theme of overcoming adversity; it's a quick read, but a rich one, and a humble obeisance to the uncertainties of growing up.