I read The Cay as part of the 10-10-10 Reading Challenge, in the category of Children's Books I'm Ashamed to Admit I've Never Read. I mean, even my brother, who avoided books at all costs as a child, read this book. And loved it! He even got my mom to read it! Whereas I, the brainiac who spent her afternoons at the library after school, and looked at the cover of this book many times as it looked down at me from the shelf........Never. Ever. Read it. Until now :)
The premise of the story is fairly straightforward: young Phillip Enright lives on Curaco with his mom and dad. His father works for Shell Oil and is needed on the island to aid in the war effort (the book takes place in 1942.) When Phillip and his mother attempt to leave the island, the ship they are on is torpedoed by a German U-boat and sinks. During the attack Phillip is knocked unconscious. When he comes to he is adrift on a raft with a large West Indian man, Timothy, and Stew Cat, the ship's cook's cat. They take refuge on a small, insignificant cay, which is unfortunately situated in a treacherous cove known to Timothy as Devil's Mouth. Marooned and eventually blind from a blow to his head sustained during the attack, Phillip is completely dependent on a man he was been raised to disdain.
There is a lot going on in this book besides the general imperative to survive in unfavorable conditions. While Phillip is not one of those 'horrible-kids-turned-good-through-adversity' characters (I think of the boy in Empire of the Sun,) he has preconceptions about Timothy, based mainly on what his mother has said. Phillip views Timothy as an old, ugly, uneducated black man who under normal circumstances would be subservient to him. And in fact, at the start of the story, Timothy addresses Phillip as "young bahss," maintaining what seems to be an accepted pecking order. But in reality, Timothy is a seasoned sailor with years of experience, and from the moment he rescues Phillip from the sea he devotes himself to protecting Phillip. His teaching method combines tough-love and practical know-how. Yet, while Phillip thinks he is becoming more and more dependent on Timothy because of his blindness, Timothy is in fact weaning the boy from his care, in the unthinkable event that he should ever have to survive on the cay alone.
This book could have been subtitled, "E is for Epihany" for most of the action takes place within Phillip's heart and mind, and is Timothy's greatest service to the boy, no matter how unintentional. Compact, compelling, and infused with a Calypso tang, I'm glad I finally read The Cay.