Outwardly, Theodore Taylor’s novel The Cay is a story about 11-year-old boy Phillip Enright and his experiences stranded on a cay with an African American sailor named Timothy. However, the most important problem The Cay portrays is about how a young man learns to cast aside his racial prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.
The story tells us about Phillip and his family living on Curacao, an island in the Caribbean, during World War II. German submarines surround the island and Phillip’s mother decides to take Phillip back to Virginia, United States. They board a freighter to make this journey. The ship, however, is attacked by a German submarine. Phillip and his mother survive but are separated, with Philip aboard a raft with Timothy, a 70 year-old black sailor. Although Timothy saved Phillip’s life by pulling him out of the water, the boy is critical and antagonistic towards Timothy due to his racial prejudice learned from his mother.
While on the raft Phillip goes blind from a head injury. This sets the stage for Phillip’s challenge and ultimate growth: he will now have to trust and work with a black man if he wants to survive.
The two arrive on a cay where they struggle for survival and rescue. Initially, Phillip is unhelpful and insulting. For example, when Timothy asks how to spell HELP for his signal fire, Phillip calls him stupid. Timothy, nevertheless, works tirelessly for them both. Eventually Phillip realizes this, apologizes and befriends Timothy.