"Slicker than that" in Madison County
“Amazing,” I told my friend the other day. “Three of this year’s best North Carolina novels are set up in Madison County, just north of Asheville along the Tennessee line.”
“Interesting,” my friend said, but his eyes were glazing over. He wanted to talk politics, not books.
Still I continued, “And in each of them the county sheriff is an important character.”
My friend perked up. “Was his name Ponder?”
I explained the sheriff characters in these books were fictional and all different.
He said that it would be hard to make up a more interesting character than E.Y. Ponder, who was elected Madison County sheriff in 1952 and served, with one four-year interruption, until 1986.
I told him that it would be hard to be more interesting than the sheriff characters in the three new books.
In Ron Rash’s “The Cove, ” Sheriff Crockett, although a minor character, is part of an interesting episode in which he and his hounds are chasing a mountain bootlegger. The bootlegger takes off his shirt and wraps it around his own dog. The dog runs in one direction, the bootlegger in the other. The sheriff and his hounds, following the bootlegger’s scent on the shirt, chase the dog and lose the bootlegger.
The action in “The Cove” takes place during World War I. “A Short Time to Stay Here” by Terry Roberts takes place in the same county during the same time period. However, the sheriff has a different name, Roy Robbins. Robbins is bad to the core. He takes advantage of girls and abandons them when they become pregnant. He conspires with bootleggers and other criminals and with certain German internees who are detained in a hotel in Hot Springs.
The Madison Country sheriff in Wiley Cash’s “A Land More Kind than Home” is as good as Roy Robbins is evil. Sherriff Clem Barefield thinks of himself as an outsider in Madison County even though he has lived there for 25 years. Part of the story is told in Barefield’s voice. Cash has him tell how he faces the novel’s villain, Pastor Carson Chambliss, a handler of snakes and a manipulator of people, who seems willing to do anything, including killing anybody who gets in his way. Sheriff Barfield faces him down again and again, finally at the novel’s bloody conclusion.
“So,” I said to my friend. “What do you think of these three sheriffs of Madison County?”
“E. Y. Ponder would be a better character than any of the three,” he said.
Maybe my friend is right.
Elymus Yates Ponder and his brother Zeno dominated Madison County political life for almost a half-century. Critics called them dictators. Friends sung their praises. Those of us who want to understand the complexities of small town North Carolina politics could learn from the Ponders about the mixture of public service and power that we call politics.
John Ledford, currently in the news as North Carolina’s Alcohol Law Enforcement director, previously served as Madison County sheriff. In a 2001 interview with Rob Amberg in the Southern Oral History Program Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ledford said that people called him “the little E.Y.”
Describing the challenges a sheriff in Madison County faces, Ledford alluded to the time King Solomon threatened to cut a baby in half to settle an argument between the two women who claimed be the mother.
“In Madison County,” Ledford said, “half the people would say, ‘Saw it up,’ and they’d start fighting over who got the head or the feet. That wouldn’t work in Madison County. You’ve got to even be slicker than that.”
“Slicker than that,” whether you are the real or a fictional sheriff in Madison County.