“I said to Timothy, ‘I want to be your friend.’
He said softly, ‘Young bahss, you ‘ave always been my friend.’
I said, ‘Can you call me Phillip instead of young boss?’
‘Phill-eep,’ he said warmly” (72).
As you read this, you may be thinking that this scene seems oddly familiar. Perhaps Timothy is an alien learning our language and has finally fostered a friendship with Phillip that is worthy enough to refer to Phillip by his full name rather than young boss. The unwarranted emphasis on the pronunciation of “Philip” is probably what reminds you of E.T., yet this is not a relationship involving extraterrestrials. This is a relationship between a black man and a [bratty] white boy.
The year is 1942 and Phillip resides on a small island of Curaçao with his mother and father. Although they are originally from Virginia, Phillip’s father is a skilled craftsmen and his efforts are needed during the war. As the year is 1942, the novel is focused on World War II. However, Phillip approaches war a tad differently than other protagonists starring in a war story. Phillip is excited that his island is invaded. All this time war has been surrounding Phillip [poor thing! How horrible it must be to be surrounded by a war and never be a part of it!] Once the war approaches, Phillip’s mother [who is somehow sane despite her maniac son] decides that Phillip and her should leave the island [you know, to stay safe during this time]. A pretty reasonable decision, unless your name is Phillip. Phillip becomes infuriated and calls his mother a coward, refusing to leave the island. Yet Phillip’s father knocks his son off of his high horse and tells him that he must leave.
The freighter that Phillip and his mother are on gets torpedoed, causing a separation between the two. From this point in the novel, his mother disappears and Phillip awakes on a small raft in the middle of the sea. On the raft are Phillip, Stew Cat, and a black man named Timothy. If you are thinking that this sounds like one of those terrible jokes [So a white boy, cat, and black man are on a raft . . .], then you are absolutely right. When I say that you are absolutely right, I am referring to the fact that it is terrible. When meeting Timothy, Phillip is frightened because of his mother’s warning about how different black people are from white people [did I say she was sane? I meant insane, but given the novel’s time, such thinking is unfortunately plausible].
As a result of his head injury from the torpedo, Phillip becomes blind. When Timothy and Phillip arrive on a small island, Timothy cares for Phillip [despite Phillip’s constant bratty and insensitive remarks]. Several planes pass over the island and Phillip becomes discouraged. However, he finds comfort in Timothy who teaches him the ways of survival. When an unexpected storm approaches the island, Phillip finds himself all alone [with the exception of Stew Cat, who is perhaps the best character in the novel]. Timothy dies and Phillip has to survive on his own. A few days later, a ship approaches and brings Phillip and the cat back to his parents [all we hear is that his mother returned back to the island after the torpedo. Did she ever look for Phillip? Did she just assume that he was dead? Was she just happy to get that brat off of her hands?] Phillip undergoes a few surgery and regains his vision.
I hated this book. There were so many issues that I had with it. To begin with, I despised the incorporation of an accent for Timothy. It was overdone. It was stereotypical. I can only imagine how dreadful it would be for a fifth grader to read. I am not sure what accent it was even supposed to be. I know that Timothy is believed to be West Indian, but the accent simply comprised of dropping the first and last letter of each word: “It ‘as a difficul’ read for me.”
I get that the undertone of this novel was race, but it was also terribly done. To begin with Taylor dedicated this book to “Dr. King’s dream,” not that that is bad in itself, but I do not think the book did justice to the dream. For Phillip to become friends with Timothy, he had to literally become blind [to race]. When he first met Timothy, he was disgusted and afraid, [natural reactions of that time], yet once Phillip could no longer see race, he began to like Timothy. In one of the most cringe worthy scenes, Phillip reflects upon his relationship with Timothy:
“I remembered that ugly welted face. But now, in my memory, it did not seem ugly at all. It seemed only kind and strong.
I asked, ‘Timothy, are you still black?’
His laughter filled the hut” (100).
Alright, we get it. Phillip is blind so he cannot see race. Phillip has become friends with Timothy and retracts his initial impressions. Yet does this scene have to be necessary? I understand that the novel is written through Phillip’s perspective, but c’mon Taylor, doesn’t it seem problematic? This almost suggests that Timothy has transformed into being white because he is kind and strong [a black person capable of these things? Impossible!]
Additionally, Timothy adopted the role of the “helpful Negro,” who only exists to help his white companion. Once this is done, he no longer needs to exist, hence his sudden [and seemingly unnecessary] death.
Also, Phillip’s blindness is cured after he returns home. Yes, he was once in the dark and now he is enlightened, hence him regaining his vision. Yet I think it just proves my point that Phillip had to be blind to race to care for Timothy. It’s like those problematic people who claim that they “do not see race.” Race is a social construct, it exists [unfortunately] and affects many people. Through claiming that one does not see race, they are dismissing the realities that many experience. Instead it should be that they are aware of race, but it does not affect their perspective on people. Blindness is not the solution, awareness and acknowledgment is.