The Cay is the suspenseful story of a young boy, handicapped by blindness and thrust into an unfamiliar environment, who is forced to grow up quickly. Young readers can identify with Phillip's struggle for independence and his frustration in coping with situations over which he has virtually no control. Phillip's survival depends upon his learning to follow Timothy's instructions and to respect the power of nature. He jeopardizes his life each time he forgets past lessons, but those lapses—whether from carelessness, fear, or despair— make Phillip a very believable character.
The Cay illustrates Phillip's progress toward an ideal of tolerance, chronicling the course of events that gradually leads him to shed his prejudice toward Timothy. At first Phillip considers himself superior to Timothy, an old black sailor who eats raw fish and cannot spell the word "help." He depends upon Timothy but keeps both a physical and an emotional distance. Slowly, though, Phillip begins to appreciate Timothy's kindness and wisdom, and at the end of the novel he plans a significant gesture of respect—a pilgrimage to Timothy's grave.
Set in the Caribbean, close to the South American mainland, the novel provides an unusual perspective on historical events and topics frequently overlooked, such as the role of the merchant marine during World War II, and the war's impact on domestic life in the Americas.
(The entire section is 225 words.)
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Chapters 1 and 2 Summary
Eleven-year-old Phillip Enright lives on the Dutch island of Curacao, just off the coast of Venezuela. In 1939 his father, an expert in refineries and gasoline production, was summoned to work in Curacao for the war effort. Phillip’s mother, a nervous woman, was very unhappy about the family’s move to the island from their home in Virginia. It is now February 1942, and German submarines have just attacked the refinery on the nearby island of Aruba. Although his mother warns him to stay close to home in the aftermath of the attack, Phillip is caught up in the excitement following the event and goes down to the shore with his Dutch best friend, Henrik van Boven.
The boys first visit the old fort by the water, where they often play. They are surprised and somewhat sobered to find the facility manned by “real soldiers with rifles and machine guns” who chase them away. Phillip and Henrik then go to the Queen Emma pontoon bridge, where it is uncharacteristically quiet—the native schooners are all tied to the docks, and the Black men who work there are not laughing and shouting the way they usually do. An army officer arrives in a truck and asks the people on the bridge to leave. The boys are frightened by the eerie emptiness of the sea and return to their homes in Scharloo.
Phillip’s mother has an angry, emotional outburst when she learns that he disobeyed her and went to the shore in hopes of seeing a submarine. In contrast, when Phillip’s father returns home from work, he speaks openly and reasonably with his son about the attack and the possibility that there might be others. When Phillip asks why the men on the island do not go out and fight the enemy, his father replies gravely that they do not have the weapons with which to defend themselves.
That night, Phillip hears his parents arguing. His mother wants to take Phillip to Norfolk immediately, where she believes they will be safe, but his father insists that there will be more danger on the trip back than if they stay on the island. Because of the possibility of further attacks, sea travel around Curacao and Aruba virtually ceases. After a week, there is a shortage of fresh water and food on the islands. Although Phillip’s father remains hopeful that the ships will resume their activity again soon, his mother pushes even more strongly to be allowed to go back to Virginia.
A few days later, Phillip’s father takes him to Schottegat...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
Chapters 3 and 4 Summary
The S.S. Hato is torpedoed two days after leaving Panama. With uncharacteristic calmness, Phillip’s mother takes him out on deck; the entire back half of the ship is on fire. As Phillip and his mother are helped into a lifeboat, the Hato lurches violently, throwing everyone into the water. Phillip is hit on the head from above and loses consciousness.
Four hours later, Phillip awakens to find himself on a raft with “a huge, very old Negro,” whom he remembers seeing with a deck gang on the Hato. Phillip’s head hurts terribly, and he looks around for his mother, but he is alone except for the Negro and a large cat. Phillip asks the Negro, whom he thinks is very ugly, “Where are we? Where is my mother?” The Negro responds that he believes Phillip’s mother is safe and that they are floating “somewhar roun’ d’cays.”
Looking at the desolate sea all around, Phillip becomes violently seasick and vomits over the side of the raft. The Negro ministers to him tenderly, then rips some boards from the end of the raft and builds a shelter to shield them from the burning sun. Crawling into the shelter with Phillip, the Negro comments that they are lucky because they have a keg of water, some biscuits, chocolate, and matches.
Phillip sleeps for a while. When he awakens, his head hurts more than ever. He learns that the Negro’s name is Timothy. Although his father has taught him to address adult men as “mister,” he does not think he needs to bestow this token of respect upon Timothy because he is Black. Phillip’s mother had not liked Negroes and had always cautioned him to stay away from them because they were “different.”
Phillip realizes he is thirsty and asks Timothy for a drink of water. The old man pours him a small portion from the keg. Phillip complains that it is not enough and demands more, but Timothy refuses, telling him that they “mus’ make [their] wattah last.” Later, Timothy catches a few fish and gives Phillip some to eat. Repulsed, Phillip refuses and petulantly blames his mother for the situation he is in. Timothy wryly comments, “She started dis terrible wahr, eh, young bahss?”
That night, Phillip thinks how very strange it is for him, “a young boy from Virginia,” to be lying next to a Negro out on the sea. Although he had been around Negroes both in Virginia and in Willemstad, he had never known them very well....
(The entire section is 685 words.)
Chapters 5-7 Summary
On their third day on the raft, Timothy and Phillip hear the distant sound of an aircraft. Elated, Timothy quickly fashions a torch and lights it, then he holds it aloft in hopes that the pilot will see the smoke. The plane passes close enough to the raft that Timothy can see it. Sadly, the pilot does not notice the raft or the smoke, and soon the plane is gone.
Timothy douses the torch and vows to be ready next time. He is clearly disappointed, but he consoles Phillip by telling him that they “are edgin’ into d’aircraft track” and will surely be found soon. Although he cannot see him, Phillip senses that Timothy is ceaselessly scanning the sea throughout the day. Once Phillip crawls to the edge of the raft to touch the water, and Timothy warns him to be careful because the ocean is infested with sharks.
Phillip spends some time petting Stew Cat, and Timothy comments that the cat is “not good luck,” but he then notes that to “cause d’death of a cot is veree bad luck” indeed. As they drift on the still water, Phillip asks Timothy to describe what he sees. Realizing that Phillip is asking him to be his eyes, Timothy describes the ocean and the sky and the creatures that inhabit these domains.
In the morning, Phillip is awakened abruptly when Timothy shouts that he sees an island. In “wild excitement,” Phillip jumps up and promptly falls overboard. Frantic, Timothy dives into the water after Phillip. He grabs him by the hair, throws him back onto the raft, and hoists himself to safety after him. Timothy is furious and “roar[s]” at Phillip that there are “shark all ’round...all d’time.” When he calms down, Timothy tries to impress upon his companion how close to disaster they had come, warning Phillip succinctly, “Mahn die quick out dere.”
Because of their near catastrophe, both Timothy and Phillip have forgotten about the island. When Phillip reminds him, Timothy laughs and takes his companion by the shoulders to turn him in the direction in which it lies. Phillip asks if there are people on the island, but Timothy responds honestly that it is “a veree smahl islan’, outrageous low.” Phillip is disappointed and suggests that perhaps they will have a better chance of being found if they stay on the raft, but Timothy is determined to get to land. He understands Phillip’s fears, however, and assures him that “from dis islan’, we will get help.”
(The entire section is 683 words.)
Chapters 8-10 Summary
Timothy gets to work immediately, constructing a shelter out of palm fronds. After a few hours he is done and proudly helps Phillip run his hands over a sturdy hut large enough to fit both of them comfortably. Despite Phillip’s protests, Timothy then goes down to the reef to fetch some langosta. Phillip is still terrified about being left alone and thinks resentfully that his mother was right—Negroes “had their place” and were clearly “different.”
When Timothy returns, triumphantly bearing three large lobsters, Phillip refuses to speak to him. Timothy responds by telling him softly, “Young bahss, be an outrageous mahn if you like, but ’ere I’m all you got.” After they eat, Timothy seems very tired. As they settle in for the night, Phillip asks him how old he is. Timothy says that he is “more dan seventy,” and Phillip reflects that he is very old—“old enough to die there.”
In the morning, Timothy constructs a signal fire on the beach and enlists Phillip’s aid in arranging rocks to “say somethin’ on d’san’.” Although Timothy does not admit it openly, Phillip realizes that he cannot spell. Using a stick, Phillip draws out the letters H-E-L-P on the sand, and Timothy happily arranges the rocks, following the lines Phillip has made.
Later that afternoon, Timothy begins making a rope that will stretch from the hut down to the beach and fire pile. While he is engaged in this activity, he tells Phillip that he “mus’ begin to help wid d’udder wark” and shows him how to weave sleeping mats. Phillip tries at first but quickly becomes frustrated and throws the palm fibers at the old man, screaming epithets at him. Timothy slaps Phillip sharply once, then he returns quietly to his own task. After pouting, Phillip realizes that the rope Timothy is making is for him, to enable him to get around the island by himself. Something begins to change within Phillip from that moment, and he turns to Timothy and tells him that he wants to be his friend. Timothy responds warmly, “Young bahss, you ’ave always been my friend.”
On their seventh night on the island, a gentle rain falls, providing much needed drinking water. Lying comfortably in the hut, Phillip and Timothy talk for a long time. Timothy speaks about his childhood. He remembers that he had never gone to school and had been working on a fishing boat by the time he was ten. Phillip tells Timothy...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
Chapters 11 and 12 Summary
As time passes, Phillip begins to explore the island with Timothy's help. He becomes increasingly independent as he grows familiar with his surroundings. From what he can feel and hear, he concludes that the cay must be a beautiful place and wishes he could see it. It seems to Phillip that Timothy is doing everything he can to enable him to survive on his own. They never talk about the worst-case scenario, however, and Phillip tries hard not to think about “the possibility of Timothy dying and leaving [him] alone on the cay.”
Frustrated that they have not yet been rescued, Timothy grumbles one night that the island “mus’ ’ave a jumbi.” He believes Stew Cat is the source of their bad luck, and Phillip begins to fear for the creature’s safety. Sure enough, when Phillip awakens the next morning, Timothy and Stew Cat are gone.
Phillip circles the island in search of his companions, and he finds Timothy sitting on the North beach carving something out of wood. Timothy is evasive when Phillip asks him about Stew Cat, so after they return to the hut to eat and Timothy takes off again, Phillip decides to search for the cat on his own. Walking along the shoreline, Phillip realizes that the raft is also inexplicably gone. Although he trusts Timothy completely, he is uneasy with the old man’s odd behavior; the idea of voodoo, “the whole mysterious jumbi thing,” is frightening.
In the midafternoon, Timothy returns to the shelter and nails something to the framing. When he goes away again, Phillip feels around the edges of the hut and discovers a carving of a cat; Timothy has riddled it with nails to kill “the evil jumbi.”
When Timothy comes back a short time later, he is carrying Stew Cat. He explains that he had put the feline on the raft and anchored it offshore to chase away the jumbi. Timothy is positive that now their luck will change. Things do change—but not for the better.
One morning in the middle of May, Timothy awakens in the throes of a terrible fever. He gasps that it is malaria, and as he lies alternately burning up and shivering, Phillip can do little more than sit by him, cool his brow, and hold his hand. As the illness progresses, Timothy sinks into delirium. Around noon, he struggles to his feet and incoherently runs down to the water. Phillip goes to search for him and stumbles over his body floating near the shore. After determining that Timothy is still...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Chapters 13 and 14 Summary
For each day that they have been on the cay, Timothy drops a small pebble into an old can he found. He and Phillip landed on the island on April 9, 1942, and there are now forty-eight pebbles in the can.
On this day, Timothy decides that Phillip must learn to provide fish for himself in case he, Timothy, should again be incapacitated by malaria. Timothy catches fish and langosta with a sharp stick, but Phillip’s blindness will prevent him from using this method, so he makes several fish hooks from old nails for him. Timothy has found an “outrageous good [fishing] ’ole” on the reef and has driven pieces of driftwood every two feet along the route there so Phillip will be able to feel his way along. When they reach the coral-walled pool, Timothy shows Phillip how to find mussel to use as bait. Having fished before with his father, Phillip is able to bait his hook, drop the line, secure the fish when he feels it grab the mussel, and flip it up out of the water over his shoulder. Recognizing that he is learning “to do things all over again, by touch and feel,” Phillip experiences a deep sense of satisfaction. From that day on, Phillip does all the fishing. Timothy even lets him go out on the reef alone, but while he is there, Phillip senses that his mentor is always close by, silently looking after him.
Timothy and Phillip find a lot to talk about. Although Timothy is completely at home among the Caribbean Islands, he has never thought much about their origins. Phillip, however, knows a little bit about geography and earth science, and when he explains how the islands and wildlife might have gotten there in the very beginning, Timothy listens “in fascination...speechless.”
At the end of that week, Phillip decides he is ready to climb the coconut tree. Ecstatic, Timothy guides him, but when Phillip is about ten feet up, he freezes, overcome by fear. Timothy gently tells him, “’Tis no shame to ease your own self back downg to d’san’,” but Phillip does not want to disappoint his friend, so he starts climbing again and succeeds in securing the coconuts.
With this accomplishment, Phillip feels that he has graduated from the survival course Timothy has fashioned for him. That night, as they lie side by side, Phillip reflects that at first he had thought that his companion was ugly, but now he seems “only kind and strong.” He facetiously asks, “Timothy, are you still black?”...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
Chapters 15 and 16 Summary
The first drops of rain start to fall after dark. Before long, the wind turns cool and begins blowing steadily. The surf crashes furiously, and slithering creatures, seeking higher ground, are seemingly everywhere in and around the hut.
Suddenly, there is a splintering sound, and the shelter comes apart and blows away. Phillip and Timothy drop to the ground, with Timothy covering Phillip’s body with his own. They lie flat on the sand for almost two hours, “taking the storm’s punishment, barely able to breathe in the driving rain.” The sea finally reaches the hilltop, forcing Timothy and Phillip to race to the palm.
Placing Phillip safely in front of him against the tree, Timothy loops their arms through the rope and stands with his back to the storm. The water rises around their ankles, and then to their knees, but Timothy holds on firmly, still sheltering Phillip with his body as the water tries to suck them away. After about an hour, the storm suddenly abates, and Timothy says they can relax a bit as the eye of the hurricane passes. Although Timothy tells Phillip that he is all right, the old man sits with his head cradled in his arms, “making...small noises, like a hurt animal.”
After a brief respite, the wind and rain start up again, and Phillip and Timothy return to the palm. The second half of the storm is even worse than the first. Near the end, a wave crashes over their heads, causing them to lose consciousness. When Phillip awakens, the storm is almost gone, but Timothy sags behind him, cold and limp. Phillip finds it difficult to untangle himself and Timothy from the palm, and when Timothy falls senseless to the ground, there is little he can do other than just sit by him and hold his hand.
Timothy recovers briefly after a long while, weakly asking Phillip if he is all right. He then rolls over on his stomach and loses consciousness again. When Phillip reaches for him, he finds that his friend’s back is warm and sticky; Timothy has been “cut to ribbons by the wind,” which has flayed his back and legs with driving rain and tiny grains of sand.
Phillip falls asleep beside his protector, and when he awakens just before dawn, he finds that “Old Timothy, of Charlotte Amalie, [is] dead.” Stew Cat, who has been missing, returns. Except for him, Phillip realizes with desolation that he is now “blind and alone on a forgotten cay.”
In the afternoon,...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Chapters 17-19 Summary
Ten days after the big storm, Phillip finds that he is tired of eating fish and decides to look for scallops or langosta at the bottom of the fishing hole. Carrying a sharpened stick, he dives beneath the surface and manages to catch a langosta after only a few tries. Greedily, Phillip continues diving in search of more. On his last attempt, he discovers the opening to a deep crevice. Phillip inserts his hand to see if anything is inside and is bitten by an unidentified attacker.
Phillip is able to push himself back to the surface, but the creature’s teeth have sunk in deep, causing great pain. He later concludes that he has been bitten by a large moray eel. He never dives into the fishing hole again.
Phillip listens for sounds from the sky constantly, and one morning in early August he finally hears the faint drone of a plane. Phillip lights the signal fire and stands on the beach, waiting in anticipation, but the plane does not come near.
Crushed with disappointment, Phillip momentarily loses hope that he will ever be rescued. After a while, though, his resilient spirit reasserts itself, and he begins to think about what might have gone wrong. Phillip concludes that perhaps the plane did not seen the signal because the smoke had most likely been white, and he tries to find things he could add to the fire to make the smoke more visible.
On the morning of August 20, 1942, Phillip hears the sound of explosions in the distance and the drone of an aircraft. He lights the signal fire again, this time adding bunches of sea grape to make the smoke black. Suddenly, there is a “deafening roar” overhead. Phillip is certain that rescue is imminent and feels ecstatic, but once again the plane flies away. In complete despair, Phillip returns to his shelter with Stew Cat and throws himself down on his mat. Looking toward Timothy’s grave, he asks, “Why didn’t you take us with you?”
About noon, Phillip is roused by the sound of a bell, the “slow chugging” of an engine, and voices. He runs down to the beach and finds a small boat and a man walking toward him. The man is an American from a destroyer that has been hunting German submarines nearby. The plane that had flown overhead had indeed seen the black smoke from Phillip’s signal fire and had radioed the ship for help. The sailor and his companions are shocked to find Phillip and Stew Cat on this cay, which is so small it does not...
(The entire section is 692 words.)