Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

Living on the Dutch island of Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela, 11 year old Phillip Enright thinks it is very exciting when the World War II finally arrives there in February 1942. Packs of German U-Boats start blowing up the island’s oil refineries and sinking ships carrying much needed oil to England. Then he and his friend Henrik witness a ship hit by a torpedo and watch as it burns and sinks with not survivors. Frightened but curious, Phillip tries to talk to his dad about the war, but his mother stops the questions and announces that she wants to take him back home to Virginia.

Dismayed and angry, Phillip gets ready to leave after his father procures passage on a ship for him and his mother. His father must remain in Curacao for his job with Royal Dutch Shell for the duration of the war.

Phillip and his mother set sail on the SS Hato one morning in the beginning of April, Things go well until early in the morning on April 6th, when the ship is torpedoed by German U-Boats. Although safely together in a lifeboat, Philip and his mother get separated when the ship suddenly lurches and starts to quickly sink.

The next thing Philip is conscious of is waking up on a raft with a terrible headache, an elderly West Indian crew member named Timothy and the cat belonging to the ship’s cook, Stew Cat. Philip’s mother has always told him that black people are inferior to whites, to avoid them and to not trust them. Now he finds himself on a raft in the middle of the Caribbean and quickly realizes that his survival completely depends on this one man. His mother’s words seem to ring true when Timothy sparingly doles out their supply of fresh water and biscuits despite Philip' demand that he be given more. So the first thing Philip leans about Timothy is that he can be very wise and very kind, but very stubborn when it comes to doing what is necessary to survive.

After a few days, Philip’s eyesight begins to fade and by the time Timothy spots an island they can get to, he is completely blind. Now, more dependent on Timothy than ever, at first Philip is reluctant to do anything to help set up a camp for themselves on highest part of the island.

Eventually, however, this unlikely pair form a good working relationship. Timothy fashions a cane and braids some vines together to form a rope that Philip can use to guide himself down to the beach. And Timothy is a intelligent and patient teacher, as he prods Philip into actually doing things that, though difficult because of his blindness, will ensure his survival later on. Philip learns how to weave sleeping mats, how to fish and, with some convincing, how to climb a coconut tree to supplement their fish diet.

Their one point of contention is Stew Cat. Timothy thinks the cat is bad luck, but Philip has grown attached to the cat. One morning, he wakes up to find that Timothy and Stew Cat are gone. Philip heads to the beach and discovers that their raft is also gone. When Timothy returns later that day, he won’t answer questions about the cat or the raft, and Philip begins to fear the worst. Then he hears hammering, after which Timothy goes down to the beach. On the roof of the hut, Philip discovers that Timothy had carved a Stew Cat out of wood to end their bad luck. When Timothy returns, he has the real Stew Cat with him, alive and well.

The Cay is a small but powerful book. It was written in 1969, and is dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King and was the work Taylor was proudest of. Philip’s blindness is symbolic of how Taylor would like us to see all people; in other words, it was Taylor’s intention to show through Timothy that the value of a person is not found in the color of their skin, but who they are as a human being. And Philip eventually does overcome the prejudice his mother had instilled in him:
Timothy breathed softly beside me. I had now been with him every moment of the day and night for two months, but I hand not seen him. I remembered that ugly welted face. But now, in my memory, it did not seem ugly at all. It seemed only kind and strong.
I asked, “Timothy, are you still black?”
His laughter filled the hut. (pg 100)
Taylor received the following well deserved awards for The Cay:
1969 Award of the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People
1970 The Lewis Carroll Shelf Award
1970 Jane Adams Book Award
1970 Commonwealth Club of California
1971 Kansas William White Award
A New York Times Best Book of the Year
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Boston Globe—Horn Book Honor Book
An ALA Notable Book
A Publishers Weekly Children’s Book to Remember

However, these awards were not without controversy. Criticism of Taylor’s portrayal of Timothy as “a superstitious, subservient stereotype who spoke in comical Creole dialect” resulted in The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom asking Taylor to return the 1970 Jane Adams Book Award. Taylor returned the award but insisted that “’The Cay’ was "a subtle plea for better race relations and more understanding." (Quotes are from Taylor’s obituary in the New York Sun)
The book went to be become a favorite of both readers and teachers and has been in print continuously since 1969.
The Cay is a book well worth reading, but, be warned, it is a real tearjerker.

This book is recommended for readers age 9-12.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL

Random House has a very useful Teacher’s Guide on their website.
Useful classroom activities may also be found at The Cay

More information on the author of The Cay can be found at the author's website Theodore Taylor

*A cay is defined as a low elevated small island formed out of sand and coral reefs. A cay is sometimes called a key.

A useful map for using when reading The Cay


  1. This is a super great book! I read it with my students each year and cried while reading the end...every time!!!

  2. I know what you mean, I tear up everytime I think about the end.

  3. This is an old favorite of and reread many times. But boy, was I disappointed with the follow up, Timothy of the Cay! Without the survival on the island element, it just couldn't compete.

  4. This is a wonderful book, but I have never read the sequel and have always been skeptical of it. Glad to know I wasn't wrong to feel that way. Sometimes one just needs to left a good thing alone.


    I will be having two different giveaways on my starting tomorrow and one posted right now.

    STOP BY.


  6. I read the book and was very inspired to make a doll video of it but with a twist.Then after that I return with return to the cay.Jackson Jekyll starring as Timothy,Frankie stein starring as ghoulias friend,ghoulia starring as Phillip,crescent as stew,Holt Hyde as Henrik,clawdeen as Philips mom,meatball as Phillips dad.Like I said its with a big twist monsters and Normies instead of black and white.I'll be using Monster high dolls and 1 barbie.This video will not be on you tube so I wasted your time with this.Thank you you for reading and letting me waste your valuable 45 sec of your life.

  7. I read this in class no answers i can find. Where does Philliip's mom want to go by train???????????