Told in alternating chapters, in the voices of twins Pauline and Arlene, January 1905 is a rich historical novel that braids together the details of factory life, the small joys of rare free time and the complexities of sibling jealousy.
In 1905, children worked long and dangerous hours in factories and on farms, doing mind-numbing work. Ten-year-old Pauline drags herself out of bed each morning to face the workday. Her twin sister Arlene, cursed with a crippled foot, works at home. Each girl imagines the other has the easy life, and the envy they feel for one another threatens to tear their little family apart. Pauline works as a bobbin girl in the mill. She begins her day before sunup, leaving her warm bed for the cold walk to the outhouse. Arlene stays in bed until her family leaves for work. Even her younger brother has a job at the mill, sweeping up the lint. The noise of the factory is deafening and the dangers are real. Twelve hours a day, five days a week, they work, with a half day off on Saturday and a day of rest on the Sabbath. Every part of the day is planned around the mill and the income it provides to the family. Arlene, with her crippled foot, cooks and cleans and makes the beds, working all alone for the 12 hours the factory is operating.
When circumstances arise that force Arlene to work, the sisters must face the truth about their jealousies and the reality of life in a mill town. Arlene, finally free from the lonely boredom of her house, realizes that the mill is not nearly as glamorous as she thought. Bitter Pauline, now injured herself, comes to understand all the work her sister has been taking care of at home. Both girls find companionship and love in the most unlikely place.
Though the twin narrative is an unusual one for younger readers, the story is understandable because of the concise text, short chapters and exciting, fast-moving plot. This historical novel represents a fine and final achievement for writer Katharine Boling, who died before the book was published.