Joe Mathews: A ‘River’ cuts to it

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The Trinity River in Trinity County California. Photo credit: U.S Department of The Interior Bureau of Land Management

Have you seen “Virgin River,” the Netflix series that’s based on a series of romance novels and appears to be set in a small town somewhere in California’s Trinity County? It may not earn many plaudits from television critics, but Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says it gets one thing right: that the state’s urban and rural communities have more in common than differences. Mathews says understanding that can help us unify to solve California’s most pressing problems.

Read his column below:

A Netflix melodrama appears to understand what many of us don’t about California’s ‘urban-rural divide.’

After L.A. nurse practitioner Mel Monroe is widowed, she takes a job as the only nurse and midwife in Virgin River, an unincorporated village of 600 in the mountain forests of Northern California. 

Will she stay? It’s no idyll. While sparks fly with the hunky Marine veteran who owns the town bar, Mel finds that she can’t escape the drugs, violence, economic struggle, and health care troubles of L.A. Because rural California has all the same problems too. 

You won’t find Virgin River on any map. The town is the fictional setting—somewhere in Trinity County (pop. 13,000), one of four California counties that is entirely rural—for Robyn Carr’s bestselling series of 20 romance novels, and for a new Netflix series, Virgin River, which I watched during the COVID lockdown. Despite the show’s predictable plots, I kept watching—because Virgin River’s portrait of rural California is so unconventional, and timely. 

Conventional wisdom in California, America’s most urban state, is that we are divided between two separate universes, rural and urban. During COVID, our media obsessed over the differences in how urban and rural counties handled the pandemic. And our political narratives dwell on the alleged chasm between blue cities and red small towns, thus spreading the self-fulfilling prophecy that the country is too divided to be governed. 

These rural-urban divide narratives are false and damaging. Data and experience suggest that California’s city dwellers and rural residents should stop demonizing each other and instead embrace each other as partners in addressing our many common problems.

The Virgin River novels, like the television series, are about California’s union of urban and rural. In the typical plot, a struggling city person moves to Virgin River, seeking a new beginning. Among them are a Sacramento prosecutor nearly killed by a criminal; a twice-divorced LAPD officer shot in the line of duty; a San Francisco sous-chef whose career has collapsed; a burned-out Silicon Valley public relations warrior; and a Native American rancher from the urbanizing Inland Empire. 

In Virgin River, these arrivals  find attractive local residents hungering for heterosexual coupling. But they can’t escape the problems of the urban environments they left behind.  The plots emphasize domestic violence, post-traumatic stress, housing access, healthcare failings, addiction, and criminality in the marijuana industry. Virgin River is mostly white, but there is growing diversity, like in the real rural California. Carr has said that Virgin River could be a community anywhere. 

She’s right. In California, the real story is not urban-rural divide but urban-rural convergence, particularly as more Californians  move to previously rural places, and bring city-style development with them. The mixing of urban and rural is actually quite Californian. Most people in counties that are considered remote, from Inyo to Humboldt, live in urban clusters. And 32 percent of California’s rural population lives in the far-flung corners of large counties that are at least 91 percent urban.

Rural and urban places share the same problems—like similarly high poverty and too-low education rates. In both rural and urban California, civic leaders worry about decaying infrastructure, housing affordability, healthcare costs, and a lack of skilled workers. And police misconduct, now dominating the news in cities, also plagues California’s small towns, which have seen George Floyd-inspired protests. 

Our  winner-take-all politics also exaggerates urban-rural divisions. In 2016, 49 percent of Trinity County voters didn’t vote for Trump. Meanwhile, blue L.A. County has a few million Trump supporters. 

Virgin River, especially the Netflix version, testifies to the lack of borders between rural and urban. The town’s “old country doctor” was once a Seattle medical hotshot. The new nurse Mel’s love interest, barkeep Jack Sheridan, grew up in Sacramento and spent his military career in the Middle East.  

“Small towns can be nice,” Jack says. “And they can have their own brand of drama. And danger.”

Virgin River is not so far from the rest of California after all.  

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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