What happens in The Cay?

When World War II breaks out, eleven-year-old Philip Enright leaves the island nation of Curaçao with his frightened mother. Their ship is torpedoed by German submarines, and Philip is blinded in the attack.

  • Philip finds himself stranded at sea with an elderly black man named Timothy and a cat named Stew Cat. Eventually, the group drifts toward an island in Devil's Mouth, where they build themselves a hut. For two months, the group lives together, fishing along the cay, or coral reef.
  • However, life on the island is complicated by Philip's racism. As a young white man, Philip feels little sympathy for the older Timothy, and he must learn to set aside his prejudices in order to co-habitate. Eventually, he and Timothy strike up a friendship.
  • After a big hurricane hits the cay, Timothy dies of exhaustion. Emotionally wrecked, Philip buries Timothy in a small grave. Philip and Stew Cat are later rescued by a navy vessel. Philip undergoes surgery to correct his blindness.

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Summary

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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.