The French fairy tale which inspired Heather Tomlinson's Toads and Diamonds is not one of the more commonly known ones these days, likely due to it never having been adapted for film. If you'd like more information about the original tale, I give a brief introduction to it and provide more sources (including a link to the full text from Perrault's collection) here.
I will dive into more of the questions regarding the plot of the novel in my discussion with Mary later this month (where we will each answer the six questions we address for every Enchanted Garden book club pick). For now, I'd like to focus on the impact of the setting choices Tomlinson made in crafting this retelling.
While the setting of Tomlinson's adaptation of this tale is fully fictional, it is very strongly inspired by the Mughal (or Mogul) Empire. A key component of the setting, and the plot, involves conflict between two cultures and their associated religions; these religions, while certainly fictional, nevertheless very strongly resemble (and are very clearly inspired by) the actual religions of Islam and Hinduism. This is somewhat reminiscent of what Novik did with our last Enchanted Garden book pick, Spinning Silver: take a classic fairy tale from one cultural tradition (in that case, a combined French and German origin for Rumpelstiltskin) and lend a greater depth to the retelling by transplanting it into a fictionalized adaptation of a different culture during a particular historic period (Lithvas is a fantasy, but it is inspired by medieval north-eastern Europe). However, there is a very key difference here: in crafting the setting and the people of Spinning Silver, Novik drew on her own personal family history and experience. Novik's paternal family were Lithuanian Jews, and her maternal family were Polish Catholics; both backgrounds come into play within the fictionalized country of Lithvas and the people depicted within it.
While it is clear that Tomlinson did research the region, history, and cultures that served as her inspiration for her 'Hundred Kingdoms' setting, Tomlinson herself has no apparent personal connection to the region or cultures which she is using to weave her tale (her bio indicates she is a white American who has lived in France and studied French literature). Given this, Toads and Diamonds raises the concern of cultural authenticity in literature. This concern is far from unique to Toads and Diamonds, and also far from new. I'm not going to claim to be an expert on the subject (I'll leave that to Kathy G. Short and Dana L. Fox, the authors of the book Stories Matter, which provides an in-depth, scholarly look at the topic), but I do think that it's a very important one which deserves serious consideration.
As I read Toads and Diamonds, I was reminded of a book which I read as a child: Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples (first published in 1989). Shabanu is also a book written by an American white woman which makes use of a particular historical period and place in central Asia for its setting and characters (the titular protagonist is a young girl who lives in the Cholistan desert on the border of Pakistan and India). Even though Staples did live in Asia for twelve years before she wrote Shabanu, and her writing does demonstrate that she did significant research for the book and its sequels, she is still a foreigner to the culture she selected to portray. Although Shabanu won many prestigious awards (including the Newbery Honor in 1990), it has also been highly criticized by those whose culture and society actually are being represented within it (as Margaret Smith Crocco discovered in her own research into the subject, described in her article, "Caught Between Invisibility and Stereotyping: Teaching the Novel Shabanu"). When, as a child, I read Shabanu, I took it as an interesting way to be introduced to a culture and a place which were foreign to me; it is troublesome to now know, as an adult, that what I had taken at face value as an accurate depiction was actually one which many insiders to the culture find to be not only wrong, but offensive.
In drawing a parallel between Shabanu and Toads and Diamonds, I am not saying that I think Toads and Diamonds is offensive to the cultures or religions which inspire its setting. What I am saying, however, is that I am not qualified, as an outsider myself to those cultures and religions, to say whether it might be. It's great to see more diversity in setting, and exploring a classic French fairy tale within the context of a different cultural background certainly feels interesting and promising. I find myself wishing, however, that a writer with a personal background within the culture being depicted had written Toads and Diamonds.
I attempted to find reviews of Toads and Diamonds from people with a relevant background (Indian, Hindu, Muslim), but didn't have any success (I'll readily admit I may have missed some in my searching; if you find any, please do let me know in the comments below!). I also attempted to find out more about Tomlinson's research for this book (in particular, I wanted to know whether she'd had any insiders to the cultures she drew on for inspiration consult for her).
My feelings on Toads and Diamonds are pretty complicated, and I feel as though I'm still sorting through them. This book has brought to mind concerns about diversity and the authenticity of cultural depictions within literature, and those concerns are difficult to tackle. Although there were points where I felt that the plot let me down a bit, I did enjoy reading the book; I found it to be well-written and entertaining, and I did enjoy seeing how Tomlinson expanded upon and played with the elements of the original fairy tale. However, I kept coming back to the nagging concern: am I only enjoying this because I, too, am an outsider to the society and cultures being depicted? How accurate a depiction is it, really? Does the fictionalization of the setting go far enough to separate it from reality to justify any inaccuracies, whether intentional or otherwise?
I don't have any real answers to those questions, but I do think that asking and considering them is important. If you haven't read Toads and Diamonds, and are thinking of doing so, I'd certainly recommend that you keep the concerns and issues I've discussed here in mind as you read. I'd also note that, although this book is certainly suitable for young adults, there are some content warnings I'd give: the book contains depictions of sexual assault, religious persecution, kidnapping, and enslavement. These depictions are not particularly graphic, but if any of those things are triggers for you, you may wish to avoid it.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.