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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Cay opens in February 1942 on the island of Curacao, then part of the Dutch West Indies. When Phillip is ship- wrecked, the setting shifts to an unnamed cay deep in the Devil's Mouth, long U-shaped coral banks in the Caribbean. Most of the action takes place between April and August of 1942, although the narrative actually concludes in April of 1943 and the entire book is written from the perspective of an adult Phillip recalling his childhood adventure.

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Cay reflects Theodore Taylor's experience in the motion picture industry. Like a movie script, the novel presents an exciting and suspenseful plot in a series of dramatic, vividly described scenes.

Also cinematic are Taylor's effective use of dialogue and his choice of an exotic setting. Cleverly written, the dialogue provides background information while advancing the plot. The setting, the Caribbean during World War II, is portrayed in extensive sensory detail consistent with Phillip's role as narrator. Early in the book Phillip describes visible characteristics of the people and places he sees, but after he goes blind details of sound, smell, and touch become predominant.

Taylor skillfully combines a number of relatively conventional plot elements: an adventuresome young boy's conflict with an overprotective mother, a helpless town menaced by a wartime enemy, a shipwreck, the need to survive on an uncharted island, the developing cooperation between two people of totally different backgrounds, the characters' serious physical limitations, a young man's growing respect for an old person of lower social status, and an old man's struggle to achieve one final victory over the natural environment.

Because the novel is Phillip's story, the other characters are less fully developed than he, and most seem essentially stereotypical. The characterization of Timothy has been criticized frequently. Taylor intended both a realistic portrayal of race relationships in the 1940s and an idealistic picture of the friendship that can develop when negative societal influences are removed. But the consistent use of Phillip's point of view, while increasing reader identification with the narrator and thus heightening the tale's suspense, concurrently limits the reader's awareness of Timothy's background and the motivation for his actions. Although Taylor tries to balance the picture by showing him lose his temper, overall Timothy is too wise and patient to be completely believable.

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Theodore Taylor dedicated his book "To Dr. King's dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand," but failed to recognize elements that have since led critics to label The Cay a stereotypical and racist work.

Part of the problem stems from Taylor's choice of Phillip as the sole narrator. Although Taylor attempts to show that Phillip comes to respect and love Timothy, the only physical descriptions of Timothy occur early in their acquaintance, before Phillip goes blind.

For the most part, Taylor's language is carefully chosen. The word "Negro" is used only four times in The Cay , and there is one reference to Phillip's recollection of visiting a "colored town" in Virginia. Otherwise, the terms "black people" and "black man" are used. But Taylor has Timothy refer to Phillip as "young bahss" until Phillip asks to be called by his first name—leading some critics to claim that Timothy's dignity is destroyed by his subservient behavior. Perhaps Taylor intends Timothy to be a patient mentor who allows Phillip to vent his anger within definite limits. When Phillip demands more water, for example, Timothy ignores both his pleas and his insults; he reacts angrily when Timothy stumbles off the raft, and when Phillip refuses to work and insults him, Timothy responds with a slap, then quietly resumes his own work. Although Phillip never, even in anger, calls Timothy anything other than a "black man," he initially thinks of black people as "them—not like 'us,'" and his early descriptions of his companion reflect...

(The entire section is 1,427 words.)