‘The Ninja Daughter:’ A kickass, feminist action thriller
If I was a mystery novelist and Polis Books, the publisher of Tori Eldridge’s The Ninja Daughter, asked me for a blurb, here’s what I’d send them:
“Tori Eldridge, in a masterly display of literary osoto-gari, sweeps you into her narrative and leaves you as breathless as an expertly-applied shime-waza.”
Those are judo terms for a foot sweep and a chokehold. Unlike Eldridge, I never studied To-Shin Do Ninjutsu, in which she has a fifth-degree black belt (I only got to a green one in judo). She writes about her art well enough to convince this reader that her heroine Lily Wong could easily kick the ass of someone much bigger, younger and tougher than me.
Here’s Lily dealing with a would-be rapist:
“Sonofabitch,” I yelled, and kneed his balls so far into his gut they wouldn’t drop for a week. He howled in pain – not just from his impacted testicles, but from the zipper that had ripped his exposed scrotum from stern to stem. Justice was a bitch. And tonight, that bitch was me.
Lily, like her creator, is a Chinese-American woman proficient in Japanese martial art, but Eldridge, whom I recently had dinner with (along with some of her fellow ninjas), stresses that her heroine isn’t autobiographical.
“My first novel is about a Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja in Los Angeles with Joy Luck Club family issues,” she told a room full of fans and her former To-Shin Do classmates in Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books two weeks ago.
“I happen to be a Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja who’s lived in Los Angeles for 35 years, and trust me when I say I have Joy Luck Club family issues. But Lily isn’t me.”
For one thing, unlike her young Angelino heroine, Eldridge was born in Hawaii. And although she looks decades younger, she’s a 50-year-old retired dancer and actress who was a regular on The Love Boat, and who didn’t set foot in a dojo until after her son began studying Tang Soo Do, the Korean variant of karate practiced by Chuck Norris. Eldridge said she was fascinated by cinematic martial arts as a kid.
“A close friend’s mother owned a theater in Honolulu’s Chinatown, where we watched kung fu movies and played in the rafters. My friend’s grandfather was the famous Hong Kong movie mogul, Sir Run Run Shaw, AKA Shao Yifu.”
But Eldridge’s mother nixed actually studying martial arts, or any other physical activity but dance.
“I was asked to join the swim team, the soccer team and the gymnastics team, but my mother would always say, ‘You have to choose between the new sport or dance.’ Since I had my sights on Broadway, I always chose dance. It wasn’t until I had retired, had children, and put our eldest son into karate that I finally stepped on the mat.”
On Broadway, she was in The Little Prince and the Aviator with Michael York then toured with Anthony Quinn in Zorba before returning to New York for Marvin Hamlisch’s Smile. Then she was Tantomile in the first national company of Cats. When she moved to Los Angeles, she landed a regular role on The Love Boat as one of the Love Boat Mermaids, recorded an unreleased album with Brian Wilson, and did a half-dozen episodes of a Valley of the Dolls cable series.
“The most fun I had on a job was my motion-capture performances for [heroine] Aki Ross and [supporting character] Jane in the [CGI] film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.”
I asked her if, like her idol (and mine) Michelle Yeoh, she had to unlearn anything when switching from dance to martial arts.
“When I first studied Tang Soo Do, it took a while to learn to turn in my hips. Much of what we do in dance, especially ballet, opens the hips rather than closes them. The stances in Tang Soo Do, as with many karate-type arts, are either neutral or closed, meaning pigeon-toed. When I began training in Ninjutsu, the dance background helped tremendously, but I had to break habits learned in karate.”
Library Journal called The Ninja Daughter the “mystery debut of the month” and“an action-packed adventure that doesn’t neglect character development and speaks truth about the human condition,” while Booklist praised its “tough, snarky, and grudgingly vulnerable” heroine.
More about the novel and its author can be found on her website. In the Triad, it’s available at Scuppernong Books, Bookmarks, and Barnes and Noble.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.