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The Cay by Theodore Taylor

January 31, 2011

Book Review: The Cay by Theodore Taylor

Phillip is a young boy happy in his life on Curacao Island, the largest of the Dutch islands off the coast of Venezuela. The year is 1942. His father is an American employed as a petroleum engineer by Royal Dutch Shell to improve the refining of petroleum on Curacao Island.

The Cay: overcoming prejudiceThe story opens with German submarines attacking the group of islands on which Phillip and his parents live. It is an important export point for aviation fuel, and these small islands are pulled into the war as the Germans try to stop the transport of fuel to the allied forces.

Phillip is naïve and idealistic about the war. In typical childish fashion, he thinks it is exciting to be a part of the war, and does not appreciate the danger they are in until the small ship he and his mother board for America is torpedoed and capsizes. Phillip remembers trying to get on a life boat, but a blow to the head knocks him unconscious. He awakes on a small raft with a native West Indian man and the ship’s cat.

Phillip is at first afraid and then angry with “the old Negro,” Timothy. Timothy insists on rationing what little water and food they have, and Phillip thinks he is stubborn and bossy. But Timothy’s wisdom is soon brought to light as they drift for days without seeing any ships or aircraft. Phillip’s head continues to hurt and Timothy tries to keep his spirits up, but one tragic day, Phillip wakes up completely blind.

They drift near enough to a ‘cay’ for Timothy to pull them into shore. It is a small cay, offering little in the way of shelter or food, but Timothy is a wise old man with survival skills honed by his years at sea. Phillip is completely dependent on Timothy due to his blindness. Timothy proves himself a trustworthy and loyal friend. Through their friendship, Phillip relinquishes the racist attitudes he has learned from his mother and the general prejudice of his earlier home of Virginia.

Time passes and Timothy begins to teach Phillip survival skills; how to catch fish, how to collect water and edible plants. He even stakes a guide rope to lead Phillip to the signal fire in case Timothy is out foraging when a plane flies over. Phillip begins to suspect that Timothy is planning for the possibility of Phillip having to survive alone.

The hurricane season descends on the small cay with a violent storm. They move to the highest ground, but have to tie themselves to a tree to keep from being swept away. The ocean waves sweep over the small cay destroying almost everything. Timothy is badly hurt as he receives the brunt of the waves’ forces as he protects young Phillip. It proves too much for him and he dies.

Timothy’s foresight and care is understood as Phillip finds he has lashed their cache box and fishing supplies high up on tree trunks saving them from being swept away. Timothy seems to have done everything he could to ensure Phillip’s best chances for survival, even after he has passed away.

In a not so surprising, but still satisfying ending, Phillip hears a plane overhead and is successful at lighting the signal fire. He is rescued (along with Stew Cat). A few operations successfully restore Phillip’s sight, but he will never see the world the same again.

I’ll leave you with the final lines of the book.

“Someday I’ll charter a schooner out of Panama and explore the Devil’s Mouth. I hope to find the lonely little island where Timothy is buried. Maybe I won’t know it by sight, but when I go ashore and close my eyes, I’ll know this was our own cay.  I’ll walk along east beach and out to the reef. I’ll go up the hill to the row of palm trees and stand by his grave.

I’ll say, “Dis be’dat outrageous cay, eh, Timothy?”

Flags:

Typical racist attitudes of the 1940’s south are discussed and somewhat reflected in Phillip’s initial impression of Timothy. Phillip learns there is more to a man than the color of his skin.

Timothy’s speech is written in Caribbean vernacular which might be hard for younger readers to understand.

The word ‘damn’ is used when Phillip falls overboard of the raft into circling sharks. Pg 53

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