Theodore Taylor's The Cay is set during World War II. It's 1942 and Hitler has invaded Holland and defeated France. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America has officially entered the fray. As the novel opens in February 1942, a significant part of the world's military forces are mired in war. (Check out this WWII timeline.)
The Nazi submarines, called U-boats, are stalking the island where Phillip and his family live. The war-torn backdrop adds action to the plot, but it also asks us to think about themes of sacrifice and heroism. We're also alerted to the fact that the book will be addressing the theme of violence on many different levels.
The tiny Caribbean island of Curaçao (how do you pronounce that?) has a complicated history. Native islanders lived on the island until the Spanish invaded at the end of the 15th century. Then it was conquered by the Dutch in 1634. The island became an active hub for the transatlantic slave trade. In the 20th century, Curaçao became home to many oil refineries. Today it is a popular tourist destination.
Because of its long history of trade and imperial domination (Europeans have been fighting over the island for hundreds of years), we might think of Curaçao as a "contact zone." A "contact zone" is a term professor-types use to describe places where people from a lot of different cultures have been brought together by trade – in this case, the slave trade and the oil trade. In contact zones you find a lot of mixing and mingling among cultures. We see this during Phillip's descriptions of the town of Willemstad:
I had played there many times with Henrik and other boys when we were a few years younger, imagining we were defending Willemstad against pirates or even the British. They once stormed the island, I knew, long ago. Or sometimes we'd pretend we were the Dutch going out on raids against Spanish galleons. That had happened too. It was all so real that sometimes we could see the tall masted ships coming over the horizon.
Of course, they were only the tattered-sailed native schooners from Venezuela, Aruba, or Bonaire coming in with bananas, oranges, papayas, melons, and vegetables. (1.9-10)
Willemstad is a mash-up of many different cultures. As Phillip's description suggests, the town brings together lots of different people all together in one place. This clash of cultures is explored on a personal level in the friendship between Timothy and Phillip, and even, to a lesser extent, in the friendship between Phillip and Henrik.
Shmoop Head Scratcher: Why does the book lament the Nazi invasion of Holland (1.23), but not the Dutch or Spanish invasion of Curaçao? What makes it OK to invade one country and its people, but not another? Is there a double standard here?