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They were pioneers in their times — two women who are better known for their work than their names. One for her superb photographs that document the cultural history of America. The other for her books that celebrate ingenuity, family and friends.

Their names: Dorothea Lange and Louisa May Alcott.

Both women made an indelible mark on society and, in many cases, on our hearts. Two recently released biographies give the public an intimate view of these women's lives, making them great holiday gifts for fans and history buffs alike.

"LOUISA MAY ALCOTT: The Woman Behind Little Women," by Harriet Reisen, Henry Holt and Co., 384 pages, $26 (nf)

There's no doubt about it, Louisa May Alcott is famous for the family of girls she created in "Little Women." Who hasn't heard of Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy? Published some 140 years ago, the tale is timeless.

In fact, "Little Women" has been translated into more than 50 languages and adapted for stage, television, opera, ballet, film and beyond.

In many ways Alcott is the central character of "Little Women." Like Jo, Alcott was absorbed in writing and devoted to her family. But Alcott wasn't content being tied down either, choosing an independent path instead.

In "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women," author and screenwriter Harriet Reisen has compiled stories and details gathered from Alcott's journals and letters, and recollections of her family, friends and contemporaries. Paired with Alcott's works, which are somewhat autobiographical, this new information gives readers a never-before-seen look at a literary icon.

Alcott wrote more than 200 works, ranging from nonfiction and poetry to plays and adult novels. But she also spent time away from pen and paper working as a seamstress, domestic servant, Civil War nurse, abolitionist and suffragist. And Reisen takes readers through all these stages.

Reisen has brought together an incredible amount of research in an accessible and heartwarming way. Her enthusiasm for the project is obvious as she captures Alcott's personality and determination with zest. This fascinating work is beautifully written and full of character.

As a companion to her book, Reisen has also completed a documentary on Alcott. It's scheduled to premiere on PBS' American Masters on Dec. 28, and if it's anything like Reisen's book, it will definitely be worth watching.

"DOROTHEA LANGE: A Life Beyond Limits," by Linda Gordon, W.W. Norton, 560 pages, $35 (nf)

"Migrant Mother," an image of a young mother staring off into oblivion while sitting with three of her children, is one of a series of photographs shot in Nipomo, Calif., in 1936.

And while "Migrant Mother" is perhaps one of the most recognizable pictures in the world, many have no clue about the photographer.

In a time of poverty and economic disaster, photographer Dorothea Lange's images spoke to a nation. And those poignant images still resonate today.

Lange was a woman who challenged social norms. Rather than choosing to be at home, tending house, children and husband, she was out creating images that captured the essence of people and humanity as a whole.

In "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits," author and historian Linda Gordon offers readers a portrait of this amazing photographer.

From Lange's bout with polio as a child and her work as a full-time photographer for the New Deal's Farm Security Administration to Lange's documentation of Japanese-American internment during World War II and her work in Asia, Ireland and small-town America, Gordon covers all aspects of Lange's career.

In a way, Lange created her own autobiography through the images she captured. Here, Gordon is filling in the space between those projects, melding her research with more than 100 of Lange's photographs that are sprinkled throughout the text and also grouped in three sets of plates.

At 560 pages, Gordon's book is comprehensive, to say the least. It doesn't read that long, and more than 100 pages are dedicated to Lange's captions, extensive notes and an index.

Meticulously researched and written with the care and passion of Lange herself, Gordon's book is sophisticated without being stuffy. It's not only an account of Lange but also a social history of the United States and beyond.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com