'The Cay' (1969) and 'Underground to Canada' (1977): A Comparison
One more old school assignment I managed to find—and I'm grateful for.
This is a follow-up journal entry (with recent edits) to the novel studies from Grade Eight that I have already shared on this site. For your reference, visit the first and the second story in particular to capture the full context of this final post.
Please note that I don't remember which editions these books are as I didn't include them in my assignments at the time.
Having completed four survival books in class, Theodore Taylor's The Cay and Barbara Smucker's Underground to Canada were the two that stood out to me as exhibiting striking similarities beyond their shared genre.
Although I would like to discuss their comparable plots, themes, and symbolism, there is an exceptional difference between them that I'll also draw attention to later in this entry.
Starting with The Cay's plot, it takes place during the Second World War in 1942. A young boy named Phillip is separated from his mother when the freighter they traveled on together was torpedoed by German submarines, leaving him unconscious on a small raft that happens to sail him to a cay.
When he comes to, he meets an African-American man named Timothy on the raft. Phillip initially despises him due to his appearance, illiteracy, and "odd" behavior that his father warned him was typical of black people and therefore must be avoided at all costs.
Once they are washed up on the island, however, they're forced to put aside their differences as a result of Phillip's temporary blindness from a head injury. If they're to survive, they must be able to cooperate.
The pair begins to bond when Timothy shares his knowledge about the island with Phillip, teaching him everything he knows about adapting to this environment in case he does not make it out alive himself.
As time goes on, Phillip learns to work with his weaknesses while applying his newfound skills and becomes less dependent on Timothy when their plight becomes far more challenging.
Then we have Underground to Canada's storyline, based on America's Slave Trade during the 1850s. A young girl named June Lilly (or Julilly) is born into slavery; she, too, is separated from her mother, only here it's by a slave trader who forces her to work brutally long hours on a new plantation.
Before this devastating separation, her mother told her about a place called Canada that prohibits slavery, and that she can live freely there once she crosses the border. Julilly and her best friend Liza meet two underground workers named Adam and Lester who agree to help them on their way.
It won't be easy, however; the girls must disguise themselves and remain hidden as much as possible so that no traders can track them down, as well as pro-slavery white citizens who would undoubtedly give them away.
The most obvious similarity is that both stories are rooted in historical events, as noted in The Cay's first page and Underground to Canada's introduction provided by Lawrence Hill and bibliographical references. Aside from that, we see that while both children are cruelly torn away from their parents, they aren't left alone in their struggles: Julilly has Liza, Adam, and Lester on her side, and Phillip has the wise Timothy and a cat accompanying him.
This doesn't mean they completely leave it to others to fight for their survival, however: Phillip must assist Timothy in gathering food, building fires, and constructing a shelter that may not be comfortable but allows them to sleep at night with guaranteed protection from harsh weather conditions.
Before they can even begin their treacherous search for Canada, Julilly and Liza are forcibly tasked with picking cotton and other work related to the plantation, knowing that refusal to do so will lead to severe punishment.
Their difficult situations won't prevent them from finding a place to call home and reuniting with their families once again. To do so, they each have their obstacles to overcome. In Phillip's case, he begins his character arc as a taught racist, as evidenced by his heartless and unreasonable outburst against Timothy: "You ugly black man! You're stupid, you can't even spell." (75) Additionally, he believes that because Timothy is old and has his own "incomprehensible" way of solving problems, he's essentially useless and therefore won't change his attitude to benefit them both.
What makes this even more disturbing is his nonchalant view on war despite having never experienced it before. In fact, he's ignorantly eager to witness it for the first time as it if were a festivity: "I was not frightened, just terribly excited. War is something I'd heard a lot about, but had never seen." (10)
This all eventually changes when Phillip realizes how protective Timothy is of him. Rather than judging him by his skin color, he symbolically credits him as a compassionate and intelligent human being equally as worthy of respect as any other individual when he says, "He is neither white nor black." (79) We also see him beginning to question social constructs when he asks Phillip, "Timothy, are you still black?" (100)
Part of what makes a round character is their ability to challenge surface-level norms that don't contribute to a healthy society and build virtues that do. Phillip faced much danger in his life, but he came out of it able to think for himself and see things for what they are rather than what others want him to believe.
Julilly is likewise well-rounded albeit in a different way. Whereas Phillip starts with no faith in Timothy to survive, Julilly is a religious girl who regularly prays for all the slaves' freedom, like on page 90 when she pleads, "Lord, save us." However, she must be brave and prepared to make sacrifices for her companions, and cannot rely solely on prayers to alleviate her trauma.
She demonstrates her will to face adversity regardless of the outcome and Liza is touchingly indebted to her: "Without you Julilly, I'd starve to death." (50) This comment further illustrates their special bond and trust in one another for safety.
Phillip and Julilly are clearly the protagonists of their respective stories we follow as readers, but Timothy and Liza are very much the deuteragonists that take the lead in conflict resolution. Timothy advises Phillip on how to stay out of trouble while interacting with his new surroundings, and Liza seems to have a lot of say in what should be done, like on page 39 when she instructs Julilly to wash old rags: "On Sunday we wash any ol' rags that we wear for the rest of the week. Here's your battlin' stick. Now we just put our shirts on this big ol' block of wood and hit and battle the dirt right out of them."
The setup for both novels respectively is where the connections start to diverge, but the literary choices nonetheless impact the way we understand their contextual significance. The Cay has Phillip begin his story in Curacao, which is off the coast of Venezuela, and then in the Caribbean. Until he's rescued his opportunities for socialization and mobility are actually quite limited when compared with Julilly's.
She begins her route in the Hensen's Virginia plantation; from that point on, she's constantly traveling with her companions, encountering new allies and foes along the way. While they manage to find temporary refuge at a kind old lady's house, most of their interactions with people do not end well. There is even a farm woman on page 87 who accuses Julilly of being a thief when she wanted to buy food from her: "You get off my land, you n*gger slave. You've been running away and you've been stealing money."
We can see that these books belong in both the survival and the historical fiction genre. Even though the names and scenarios are imagined, the referenced events, beliefs, lifestyles, and manners of speech are reflected in these two periods. Smucker, for instance, was inspired to write Underground to Canada with the help of Hill and various cited sources, including what she learned about Canada's history.
There are a couple of additional smaller differences between the protagonists: whereas Phillip lived with both his parents, Julilly never knew her father, as stated on page 15, "Julilly knew all this - how Massa Hensen was better to his slaves than most - how her Daddy died the day that she'd been born from being bitten by a snake."
On a more tangential note, Julilly herself is not racist like Phillip previously was, but she and her peers were subjected to discrimination like Timothy was for presumably the majority of his life. Racial profanities are condemned now, but comments like "This is a fat, strong n*gger baby," (19) are commonplace in Underground to Canada to reflect the traders' and general society's control over free speech.
But the most crucial difference I want to discuss is the points of view used in each book to offer the reader a unique reading experience. The Cay was written in the first person, so Phillip narrates from his perspective. This POV reads like a diary; he tells us about his feelings toward other characters, how he copes with his environment and his predictions for the near future. He's very particular about dialogue so that the audience can immerse themselves in each scene.
Underground to Canada, meanwhile, was written in the third person, so Smucker "knows" what all her characters say and think. She too details her characters' actions and motives; like a largely isolated Phillip in more ways than one, she offers readers a plausible idea of what the slave trade may have been like in the eyes of multiple people.
Both POVs are useful in what they can accomplish for the reader's extended thinking about each context. For starters, Phillip had gone to school before he was stranded; we can assume he knows how to read and write, so it's not out of the realm of possibility to conclude he "wrote" the story and left it behind for someone else to pick up and learn from. It was a personal journey for him, and that's how the audience will internalize it for themselves.
Slaves never went to school to receive education in literacy, so it makes more practical sense for Smucker to narrate Julilly's story in the third person. Moreover, because there are so many characters involved with their contributions to such a complex and sensitive topic, it appears logical to take a more distanced approach even if we're focussed in on Julilly's perspective.
I would never try to compare peoples' lived trauma, fictional or otherwise, but if I had to say who is in the "better" situation between these two characters, it would be Phillip. He and Timothy have more flexibility in when and how they use the resources available to them because while threats to their lives do certainly exist, they are not necessarily "guaranteed" to affect them the same way they are in the slaves' case.
Whether they are working or escaping, everyone who is pro-slavery is actively trying to strip these people of their rights and freedoms the second they go out of line. Not only that, nobody is sending out planes to rescue them like in The Cay—they're trying to get to Canada by themselves and influence integration processes. Those are major goals that would monumentally impact other people's lives aside from their own. Both protagonists are lucky they have friends helping them, but Julilly's group is at a clear—and terrifying—disadvantage due to the power dynamic working against them.
These intensities present in both novels are nonetheless what make them so compelling for us as readers to engage with. The use of symbols also helps indicate where the story should go and what is happening with the characters thematically. Devices like metaphors and superstitions support meanings that encourage the reader to have a more intimate relationship or emotional experience with the text when they make those connections.
An example of this in The Cay can be found on page 79 when Timothy tells Phillip, "Why b'feesh different color or flower b'different color? I true don' know, Phill-eep, but I true tink beneath d'skin is all d'same." When considering people, even if we look different from each other by some phenomenon, Timothy rightfully argues that we are still all humans and there's no reason why we can't live together in harmony, like the flowers and the fish do.
On page 76 in Underground to Canada, Julilly has a moment of self-reflection: "I seem to be growing as strong as a horse," which means she's building the fortitude to overcome the difficulties in her journey. Here, Liza says, "I'm shrunk up as poorly as a dried cricket," which is an intriguing layer for her character. Even if she reads as more of the leader in the group, she still acknowledges in a way that she must stand up for herself to do what needs to be done.
Julilly also chants hopeful songs other children seem to find appealing. Her songs speak of a fulfilled life with her family in a place she can be seen as equal, such as this one on page 29: "I am bound for (the) promised land, I am bound for (the) promised land. Oh, who will come and go with me? I am bound for (the) promised land." The fact that children enjoy her singing suggests hope for future generations.
Symbolic moments like these make it easier to connect stories with real-world concepts as we understand them, especially as far as advocacy is concerned. The historical events that inspired these extraordinary novels are still relevant to how we feel about and shape our society today. There are elements of the respective mindsets palpable in these stories that are very much alive today, and while we aren't always aware of or in contact with them, literature is one of the optimal ways to humanize ourselves so that we can participate in a purposeful discourse about things that shouldn't exist.