The Cay is one heck of a mash-up. Author Theodore Taylor's children's novel is both a gripping war story and a classic desert-island tale of survival. The action is set during World War II and begins on Curaçao, a Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. Our protagonist is an American boy named Phillip who is about to experience first-hand the harsh realities of war. Just as he is fleeing the island with his mother, his ship is torpedoed by a German submarine. Phillip is injured during the blast, which causes him to go blind.
Making matters worse, he ends up stranded on a remote cay with only a West Indian man named Timothy and a cat named Stew for company. Phillip and his companions have to deal with a whole new set of problems. Instead of running from Nazis, they now have to worry about food, shelter, and weathering massive tropical tempests. A tough situation for the novel's characters, to be sure, but all this genre-bending action means double the excitement for adventure-hungry Shmoopers.
Since its publication in 1969, The Cay has won nearly a dozen different literary awards and remains a staple of elementary and middle school classrooms. While the nonstop action is part of The Cay's popularity, the book is also a coming-of-age story that addresses more serious issues, such as race relationships. The novel's young protagonist is a white American who has picked up bigoted attitudes from his family back on Curaçao. When he becomes close friends with Timothy, the black West Indian man who is his sole human companion on the island, he is forced to confront his own prejudices. Phillip's personal transformation and growing love for Timothy is at the heart of the story; his change of heart gives emotional weight to the rest of the novel's excitement.
Shmoop Caveat: Critics have sometimes questioned Theodore Taylor's depiction of the West Indian Timothy, arguing that the character can be interpreted as a racist caricature, especially because of the way in which his dialogue is written (source). Keep this point of view in mind as you read. Do you agree with critics, with Theodore Taylor (who says the charges of racism are "nonsense"), or with both?
Theodore Taylor (1921-2006) began writing for newspapers when he was only 13, and his fiction is rich with journalistic detail. He also served in the Pacific during World War II and later became a writer in Hollywood. Taylor wrote dozens more books besides The Cay, including several other children's novels, fiction for adults, and works on military history.
Why Should I Care?
American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In his most famous oration, King argued that all Americans, black and white alike, were "guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'" Dr. King's words give us a glimpse of a dream: a world of equality in which his own children would not be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Timothy Taylor's The Cay offers us an opportunity to imagine just such a world. Phillip, a young white boy, and Timothy, an older black West Indian man, must reconcile the differences they face because of their skin colors and their cultures. Phillip in particular must confront the personal prejudices he holds in his heart. While the Caribbean waters around them are infested with German war submarines, Timothy and Phillip manage to create a haven of caring friendship in the small world they inhabit. Given the war-torn backdrop of the book, their against-the-odds friendship stands as a beacon of hope in a very dark chapter of world history.
That individuals from such different backgrounds can overcome prejudices and embrace their humanity is a testament to the power of the ideas set forth in the "I Have a Dream" speech. No wonder Theodore Taylor dedicated his book to Dr. King. The Cay is important for Shmoop readers, and readers everywhere, because it brings ideas about equality and basic human dignity to life in its pages.