The Cay by Theodore Taylor is a thrilling survival tale with a dash of historical fiction. Taylor tells the story of eleven-year-old Phillip Enright, an American living on the Caribbean island of Curaçao during World War II. While attempting to return to safety in the U.S., Phillip’s ship is torpedoed and he finds himself blinded and stranded on a raft with an elderly black man named Timothy. As the two attempt to survive on a deserted island, Phillip learns lessons in friendship, perseverance, and inner strength. The story’s message of racial equality provides material for meaningful class discussions. Its linear structure and dynamic protagonist also make The Cay a wonderful resource for teaching plot structure and character development.
The historical context of The Cay can present difficulties for young readers. It may be helpful to begin the reading unit with background on the geography and history of the novel. Curaçao is an island located off the coast of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean Sea, not far from Aruba. In the 1940s, Curaçao was a territory of the Netherlands, known for its oil refineries. When World War II began in 1939, the oil produced on Curaçao became essential to Allied operations. The U.S. and Britain, in particular, relied on these refineries. To weaken their Allied enemies, therefore, Germany began to target the refineries, torpedoing oil tankers and even attacking the refineries themselves. Curaçao itself was attacked in February of 1942. Although Phillip Enright’s story is fictional, his predicament is based on real historical events.