The Origins of a Screenplay
by Michael Amundsen
As a writer, I have always had a passion for the stories of my immigrant ancestors. But my choice of protagonists has developed and changed over the years. As a young man, I had been attracted to the struggles of the men, the fathers. As I grew older, I began to understand that the stories of the women were often left behind.
For example in my own family, my grandfather would become disabled at the age of 47, leaving my grandmother to take the responsibility for the welfare of her family as well as my incapacitated grandfather.
This is a situation that would repeat itself when years later, my mother would suddenly have to singly support the family and look after the welfare of my father who was dying a slow death from cancer.
There is no doubt I pulled from these experiences in fashioning the story of Siri, the little immigrant girl alone on the Montana plains forced into a situation beyond her control. In many ways it is similar in spirit, though not in fact, to the challenges that faced my own grandmother.
My grandparents Tønnes Andreas Amundsen and Karen Gyland met in Coon Prairie, Wisconsin. They were both children of Norwegian immigrants. They were high school sweethearts and married in 1899.
Tønnes was essentially an orphan. His mother had died and his father had disappeared to Norway to remarry. But Karin came from an intact family.
So it was much more difficult on her when her husband abandoned Wisconsin for the hardscrabble prairie of southeastern Montana, which he did in 1907 when Congress expanded the Homestead Act.
He laid claim to a homestead in the Bloomfield area of Dawson County, Montana. He spent that first year in a small shack, much like the one where the Omsdals in CAT AND THE TROLLS lived. He proved up the claim, beginning to plow and plant, and built a larger home for Karen and by that time, the oldest daughters Esther and Doris. The family came that next summer.
Karen did not like Montana. She was stuck on a homestead miles from neighbors. She missed her family. And besides, Wisconsin was green and pretty. Southeastern Montana was very dry, brown and rough. And like in CAT AND THE TROLLS, the weather could be harsh and even life-threatening.
Tønnes worked hard all week and then disappeared to the big town of Glendive (population: 5,000) to hit the bars and get drunk all weekend long before he came back home to begin his demanding farm work.
On those weekends, Karen was left alone with the children on that barren isolated plain, subject to bad weather and the random stranger who would appear at the door begging for food or money. Were those stories inspiration for the troubled strangers that intrude on young Siri and her brother Toad in CAT AND THE TROLLS? Although the details are different, I know I drew from those events.
Four more children were born, including my father and Ivan who perished from the Spanish flu before he reached his first birthday. CAT AND THE TROLLS opens with the Omsdal mother, also named Karin, dying from this same epidemic.
In 1917, when Dad was three, the family moved into Glendive and bought a house. Tønnes worked at hard labor, like harvesting ice from the Yellowstone River.
Months later, Tønnes had a stroke. The entire family thought he was about to die. He didn’t. Instead, he was paralyzed on one side, unable to walk or talk.
At that time, his farm neighbors owed him a lot of money. He owned the only thresher in the area and farmers would borrow it with promise of payment when the harvest went to market. It was a verbal agreement that was quickly forgotten when one of the contracting parties lost their ability to verbalize. It sent Karen and Tønnes even deeper into financial despair.
Like Siri in CAT AND THE TROLLS, Karin was faced with hard decisions. She became the breadwinner. The family was moved to the back of the house and boarders were taken in for the front. Karin took in laundry and provided hot meals for all residents.
And early responsibility was foisted on the children. As soon as he could, my father found a job and paid for his own school expenses and clothing.
CAT AND THE TROLLS takes a hard look at the responsibility expected of immigrant children.
This family tragedy influenced my father’s view of his parents. It made him closer to his mother, whom he always admired for her strength and faith.
Ironically, this situation would be repeated later in my own life when my mother had to take over for my father while he slowly died from cancer over a period of a year.
Having been exposed in my youth to strong women forced through no choice of their own to take charge of the welfare and survival of their families, it was natural for me to choose 13 year-old Siri to be the protagonist of CAT AND THE TROLLS. These remnants of my family’s stories are what I wove into the fabric of my screenplay CAT AND THE TROLLS.