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Winner Best Literary Fiction Blog - 2008
Shortlisted for Best Literary Fiction Blog - 2009, 2010
Longlisted for Best Literary Fiction Blog - 2011 Shortlisted Best Written Book Blog - 2010

The Blue Sweater – Book Review

The time has come to extend to every person on the planet the fundamental principle that we hold dear: that all human beings are created equal. Rather than seeing the world as divided among different civilizations or classes, our collective future rests upon our embracing a vision of a single world in which we are all connected. Indeed, maybe this notion of human connection is the most important – and complex – challenge of our time. Markets play a role in this vision, and so does public policy. So does philanthropy. We all play a role in the change we need to create. – from The Blue Sweater, page xiii, prologue –

Jacqueline Novogratz was twenty-five years old and living in Kigali, Rawanda when she saw something that would form her philosophy of connectedness: a young  boy walked down a dirt road in Africa wearing the blue sweater Novogratz had donated to a charity in America when she was just a teen. The idea that our actions (or inactions) may have an impact on others which we may never be aware of, was a powerful one for Novogratz who had come to Africa wanting to understand what stood between wealth and poverty. Educated as an international banker, her journey to bridge the global gap between the very poor and the very rich would eventually lead her to create The Acumen Fund – a nonprofit organization which raises charitable monies – not to give away, but for careful investment in entrepreneurs who have the vision to deliver essential services to the poor: a man who built a company which provides safe water to more than a quarter of a million of India’s rural poor, an agricultural products designer whose ability to sell drip irrigation systems to small-holder farmers has enabled them to double their yields and income, and a malaria bed net manufacturer in Africa whose business employs more than 7,000 people (mostly poor women) while providing bed nets to 16 million people a year.

The Blue Sweater is a memoir of sorts – a journey of one woman who believed she could make a difference in the lives of poor people which would be sustainable. Jacqueline Novogratz began her incredible journey at the age of twenty-five when she traveled to Africa under the auspices of a nonprofit microfinance organization for women. The years which followed allowed her to meet amazing individuals who had vision and strength of character, people who were eager to lift themselves out of poverty if only given the tools to do so. One of Novogratz’s first projects was to create a bank for women which would enable them to open savings accounts and get small loans to start and nurture businesses in Rawanda…not a simple process given a culture which had supported laws like the Rawanda Family Code – a law which was especially detrimental to women who had few rights and were the property of their husbands. Bride price was still in effect in the mid-80s when Novogratz arrived in Africa and it was a tradition which would prove difficult to change.

Our focus became learning how to navigate political institutions and work with the best individuals inside of them, the churches included. – from The Blue Sweater, page 68 –

Novogratz shares the lessons she learned and the mistakes she made in her book with an honesty and warmth that is hard not to admire. The basic idea of dignity and self-worth being important to ALL people, is a strong theme in the book. Poverty steals an individual’s ability to make choices, and Novogratz demonstrates this idea over and over in The Blue Sweater.

Money is freedom and confidence and choice. And choice is dignity. – from The Blue Sweater, page 87 –

Novogratz is an amazing writer. She brings to life the people, culture and geography of Africa, and shows her journey from a naive twenty-something into a woman with the wisdom and confidence to build a million dollar business tackling the issue of global poverty in ways which are revolutionary. I loved her descriptions of not only Africa, but also India and Pakistan. It is easy to see where an idealistic young woman would be drawn to these countries.

Like a volcano, Africa can stun you in an instant. It can throw floods and drought and disease at you, sometimes all at the same time. In the next moment, it will tease you with its magnificent beauty, so even if you don’t forget, you can find a way to forgive. Ultimately, it keeps you coming back for more. – from The Blue Sweater, page 125 –

I loved spending time in the Kigali marketplace – the bargaining, the camaraderie, and the constant chatter of vendors and customers. I loved the way barrels of dried beans stood together like stout men at a beer fest; the beautiful red tomatoes piled in pyramids; the bright yellows, greens, and pinks of so many different types of bananas; sunny oranges, blushing mangoes, and pale fennel and leeks. I loved the smells of the fruits and flowers and the feel of rice when I ran it through my fingers. – from The Blue Sweater, page 58 –

Still, I longed for the colors of Africa, the smells of cooking over an open fire in the morning, the sight of the purple rain marching across the land. I missed the simple way that people embraced one another; the way they asked about your family, your day, your health before discussing business; the way children waved their hands back and forth, like little Japanese fans aflutter. I missed bargaining for everything. I missed the optimism and resiliency of so many Africans I knew. I missed finding beauty in everyday things. – from The Blue Sweater, page 135 –

Novogratz brings to life the people she has met – the villagers, her mentors, the entrepreneurs who have impressed her, and those who have joined in her efforts to elevate people from poverty. She shares their wisdom and their philosophies in a seamless narrative that at times reads like a novel. The section of the book where she returns to Africa after the horrific Rawandan genocide, were riveting and moving.

The personal stories in the book are balanced with facts about poverty, finance, and economics which are written in such a way to be understandable to those without an economics background. For example, when Novogratz writes about the investment style of patient capital (‘not traditional charity, not traditional business investment, but something in-between‘), she takes the confusion away from the concept and pares it down in human terms.

Patient capital is money invested over a longer period of time with the acknowledgment that returns might be below market, but with a wide range of management support services to nurture the company to liftoff and beyond.

If it were easy to start a business serving the poor, patient capital would not be necessary. It’s not easy. Social entrepreneurs focused on serving low-income markets work against all odds of success, facing enormous individual and institutional challenges. The only chance to overcome these hurdles is to combine an extraordinary entrepreneur with the kind of support that neither traditional investors nor charities can provide. – from The Blue Sweater, page 239 –

I loved this book. I loved that I learned something about poverty I didn’t know. I loved that the book offered optimism and hope for a problem that far too often makes one want to turn away because of the vastness of it. The Blue Sweater is a captivating book written with passion and knowledge. It is a book which really is a must read…because, after all, we are all connected.

Highly recommended.

9 Comments

  1. July 18, 2010    

    I have always wanted to read this book! And your review just reminded me about it!

    great job!

  2. July 19, 2010    

    Great review, Wendy! I hadn’t heard of this book, but it sounds like one my book club would love.

  3. July 19, 2010    

    Wonderful review! Novogratz sounds like an amazing person. I think I would really like to read this book as it sounds fascinating to me. Thanks for shairng your review on this one!

  4. July 19, 2010    

    Wow Wendy thank you so much for this review!

    We’d be thrilled if you’d post it on our Blue Sweater fan group on the Acumen Fund community site (link below) or join the fan group to add your two cents to the discussions. It’d be interesting to hear your perspective as an avid reader and writer yourself.

    http://community.acumenfund.org/group/bluesweater

    Let me know if there’s anything we can help with.

    Wei Wei

  5. July 20, 2010    

    I just put this on my wishlist. Thanks for this inspiring review.

  6. July 22, 2010    

    I’m really looking forward to this book! My mom got it for me for Christmas and I haven’t read it yet, but she keeps asking if I have. 😀

  7. July 26, 2010    

    Lisa: It is a terrific book – hope you’ll get a chance to read it soon.

    JoAnn: I think this would make a great discussion book…

    Zibilee: You’re welcome – I was very impressed with Novogratz…

    Wei Wei: You’re welcome 🙂 I’ve joined your community!

    Wisteria: You’re welcome – hope you like the book as much as I did.

    Amanda: Oh, don’t wait…read it, its great!

  8. August 21, 2011    

    I did like this book, but I am not so sure I could honestly tell you to rush out and get this book. I read it from cover to cover, but it took me several weeks to finish. I was struggling with it. It was not written in a fashion that “sucked me in.” I was initially intrigued by the story of “the blue sweater” which gave this book its name, and also serves as a true story creatively used to entice book sales. The endearing “we-are-all-connected” story about Jaqueline’s charity sweater she finds being worn several years later by a young boy in Africa is told in the first four pages of the book. It is not mentioned again until page 243. The totality of the book didn’t feed my spirit like I was anticipating. In the end (in the middle of the book actually) I was left asking myself “Is this all I get?” And in the end I felt there was no real pay off for me muddling through to the end.

  9. August 25, 2011    

    Serials Up: Thanks for stopping by. I’m sorry the book was a disappointment for you – obviously, I felt differently. But, that is part of what makes the world interesting – differing viewpoints!

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