In Theodore Taylor's The Cay, why is the Empire Tern exploding so important to the people?
In Theodore Taylor's novel The Cay, the S.S. Empire Tern is described as "a big British tanker," armed with machine guns to defend itself against enemy attack. It is World War II, and the novel's young protagonist and narrator, Phillip Enright, describes the tense environment on the Caribbean island on which he and his family reside, his father being an employee of the oil company exploiting the island's resources. As Phillip describes watching the ship set sail, with the sailors aboard the large vessel exchanging greetings and hand signals with the children onshore, the scene takes a sudden and devastating turn:
"Just as we were ready to go, there was an explosion and we looked toward the sea. The Empire Tern had vanished in a wall of red flames, and black smoke was beginning to boil in the sky."
The S.S. Empire Tern, it is revealed, has been torpedoed by one of the German submarines that have been terrorizing this island community and all those who dared to sail the waters surrounding the island. It was this ship's destruction that convinces Phillip's mother that they must flee Curacao and return to the United States. It is during their voyage home that they themselves are victims of another such attack, with Phillip's odyssey on the island providing the remainder, and bulk, of the narrative.
In The Cay, the explosion of the Empire Tern is important because in the Dutch West Indies, people rely on tankers from the United States or England to bring them needed supplies. It rains very little there, and the naturally occurring water in the wells on Curacao is salty, so the people need shipments of water carried on tankers. In addition, the people on the island rely on schooners to bring them fresh vegetables. However, with U-boats menacing the waters, the people on the island are running out of water and food.
The Empire Tern, a British tanker, seems to promise the people of Curacao a return to safety and to shipments, as the tanker is armed fore and aft and is one of the few armed boats in the harbor. When a German submarine blows up the Empire Tern, which is loaded with gas for the Royal Air Force, the people believe that the island is no longer safe. They are facing food and water shortages, and even the heavily armed British tanker cannot protect them from the menace of German subs.