Jeanne's the girl at the back of your class who never speaks but sees everything, and that's kind of what she does for most of the book: she observes other people.
Because of her observations, we get to meet all sorts of other characters in camp, like the half-black, half-Japanese woman who is married to "a Japanese man" and passes as Japanese so she can be with him and their adopted Japanese daughter (15).
We also get a really deep look into how internment affected Japanese-American men. This is why Jeanne gives her Papa and Woody whole chapters that get told from their perspectives ("Fort Lincoln: An Interview" for Papa; "Ka-ke, Near Hiroshima: April 1946" for Woody).
In fact, their stories are arguably the best parts in the whole book. Take Woody's interaction with Aunt Toyo:
She says there is still a hill outside of town that Papa used to climb. Tomorrow I will climb it and see what his eyes used to see. (28)
Simple yet effective—you understand how much Papa left behind in Japan, and how much he lost when he went to America. All in a couple of sentences.
When Jeanne actually gets down and tells us about her own experiences, it's kind of like entering into the mind of a Japanese-American female Holden Caulfield.
She's lonely—a lot—and even after she gets crowned carnival queen (the peak of her teen years), she can't get past how alone and different she is from everyone else:
Later, at Lois Carson's house, there'd be a more intimate, less public gathering, which I'd overheard a mention of but wouldn't be invited to. Champagne in the foothills. Oyster dip. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I wanted to be ten years old again, so I could believe in princesses and queens. It was too late. (2.21.51)
This is the girl who spent her tween years in a camp where sewage overflowed makeshift toilets and six people were jammed into a tiny room, and the girl who's never even gone on a date. It doesn't matter if she's queen though, when she can't really hang with the cool kids and chow down on oyster dip and champagne.
That's why Jeanne's high school years end with Jeanne feeling empty and directionless:
I wanted the carnival to end so I could go somewhere private, climb out of my stuffy dress, and cool off. But all eyes were on me. It was too late now not to follow this make-believe carpet to its plywood finale, and I did not yet know of any truer destination. (2.21.51)
Jeanne's goal as a teenager has been all about gaining "the kind of acceptance that seemed to come so easily to Radine" (2.21.6), her white best friend. Why? It's complicated. After all, not only is she a teenager (and what teenager doesn't envy at least one of their peers), but she's Japanese American in an era when being white was a lot easier socially.
Adult Jeanne tells us that she "never wanted to change [her] face or be someone other than [herself]," but that's hard to believe when she writes about her high school dreams:
To this day I have a recurring dream, which fills me each time with a terrible sense of loss and desolation. I see a young, beautifully blond and blue-eyed high school girl moving through a room full of others her own age, much admired by everyone, men and women both, myself included, as I watch through a window…. Watching, I am simply emptied, and in the dream I want to cry out, because she is something I can never be, some possibility in my life that can never be fulfilled. (2.21.6)
Hrm… sounds suspiciously like Jeanne not wanting to admit that she wants to be a popular, white girl. All teens struggle with popularity, but there seems to be a pretty large dose of internalized racism at work here too. Let's check it out.
Remember how Jeanne freaks out when her family moves to Terminal Island, an area densely populated with Japanese Americans? Remember how, in kindergarten, she gets placed "next to a Caucasian girl who happened to have very slanted eyes… looked at her and began to scream, certain that Papa had sold [her] out [to the Chinaman] at last" (1.2.3)?
In other words, for a long time Jeanne's been a girl who isn't comfortable being Asian. Being locked up for being Japanese just makes her fear and anxiety over her identity and "differentness" stronger. Sure she gets used to all the Japanese people around her, but if her high school dreams are any indication, she still can't get over her (white) ideals of beauty.
Jeanne and Papa don't exactly have a stellar relationship. In fact, they are like polar opposites: Papa's brash, wild, abusive, and also a drunk; Jeanne, on the other hand, is sensitive, quiet, and submissive.
Jeanne and Papa are especially opposed when it comes to Jeanne's femininity. He can't stand the fact that she won carnival queen by dressing up in a skimpy sarong, and is pretty much like no wonder you won—you attracted all the hakajin (white) boys. He's very concerned with how she's supposed to marry a nice Japanese boy when she's showing her body off and acting like a typical American girl, and he wants her to be a classic Japanese odori girl —someone who dresses in a kimono, doesn't smile too much, and minces her steps (2.21.31-35).
Jeanne clearly has different ideas. She wins her crown by playing up her Asian identity in a different way:
I knew I couldn't beat the other contestants at their own game, that is, look like a bobbysoxer. Yet neither could I look too Japanese-y. I decided to go exotic, with a flower-print sarong, black hair loose and a hibiscus flower behind my ear. When I walked barefooted out onto the varnished gymnasium floor, between the filled bleachers, the howls and whistles from the boys were double what had greeted any of the other girls. (2.21.11)
In other words, she wins by being the complete opposite of a demure odori girl.
But Jeanne and her dad are actually more alike than they first appear. We get a hint of this when Jeanne describes her dad's reaction after he understands that he can't stop her from becoming carnival queen:
Papa didn't mention my queenship again. He just glared at me from time to time, with great distaste, as if I betrayed him. Yet in that glare I sometimes detected a flicker of approval, as if this streak of independence, this refusal to be shaped by him reflected his own obstinance. At least, these glances seemed to say, she has inherited that. (2.21.40)
Jeanne even comes around and, after her mother's prodding, agrees to wear a super-Victorian dress (high neck and all) to the carnival dance. It's a dress her parents approve of, as does—surprisingly—Jeanne:
When she picked out a frilly ball gown that covered almost everything and buried my legs under layers of ruffles, I thought it was absolutely right. I had used a low-cut sarong to win the contest. But once chosen I would be a white-gowned figure out of Gone With the Wind; I would be respectable. (2.21.42)
See? Daddy's girl, all the way.