This book is the opposite of a page-turner. I don’t mean that the author fails. On the contrary, Edward Baptist has written one of the richest and most provocative accounts of American slavery I have ever read. He so powerfully captures the pain and tragedy of plantation slavery—of life in what he calls the “slave labor camps”—that I had to force myself to turn each page, fearing yet another punch in the gut. The book is painful to read.

The Half Has Never Been Told achieved considerable fame as soon as it was published because of an astonishingly stupid review in the Economist—one so bad that the magazine quickly retracted it. The reviewer’s basic point was that Baptist portrays all whites as villains (which he doesn’t) and all blacks as victims. Imagine that in a book about slavery! A social media storm ensued, led by parodies of the review on Twitter under the hashtag #economistbookreviews. The book quickly shot up in the Amazon book rankings, demonstrating yet again that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Baptist’s big book retells the story of southern history and American history from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War. The author brilliantly draws out the close relationship between plantation slavery in the newly opening territories and states of what was then called the Southwest (Kentucky, Ala­bama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas) and the American capitalist explosion of the antebellum years.